US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has sought to assure Gulf monarchies that Washington is determined to help them fend off attacks from the Houthi rebel group in Yemen as he urged regional allies to “speak out” against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Blinken made the remarks on Tuesday in Morocco, where he met the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and senior Moroccan officials.
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The trip comes in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which along with sanctions against Moscow has sent wheat and fuel prices soaring in a serious blow to import-dependent North African countries.
Speaking to journalists in Rabat, Blinken said the US recognised the “disaster” the supply crunch had caused.
“We’re discussing concrete steps we can take … to help reduce the impact, particularly on the most vulnerable populations,” he said.
Blinken also said he was “encouraging partners to speak out against Russian aggression” and said he doubted Russia’s “seriousness” in talks with Ukraine held in Turkey.
Washington’s top diplomat flew to Rabat late Monday from Israel, where he had met his counterparts from the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Egypt, underlining a seismic shift since 2020 in relations between Arab countries and Israel.
On Tuesday he met Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita for discussions including on the Western Sahara dispute and security cooperation.
The same subjects will loom large in meetings the following day with Morocco’s regional rival Algeria, after months of deteriorating relations between Rabat and Algiers.
Tensions with UAE
Blinken met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed – often dubbed “MBZ” – as Washington warily watches longtime ally the UAE diverging from many of its policies.
The UAE has refrained from criticising Russia, even sending its top diplomat to Moscow. It also recently hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and has expressed unease with attempts by the administration of US President Joe Biden to revive the languishing Iran nuclear deal.
“We have real challenges to confront together, in the region and beyond,” Blinken said at the start of the meeting with Sheikh Mohammed at the crown prince’s private residence in Rabat.
He said the US was “determined to do everything we can to help you defend yourselves” against attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have recently stepped up rocket strikes on both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
He pledged to consult with the Emiratis on the Iran nuclear negotiations and also in dealing with the effects on global energy and food security caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Ahead of a visit to Algeria on Wednesday, Blinken also explored options for helping end the neighbours’ dispute over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara after new developments.
Morocco controls 80 percent of the area including a key highway towards West Africa, while the rest – a desert region bordering Mauritania and Algeria – is run by the Polisario Front independence movement.
Former US President Donald Trump in 2020 recognised the region as sovereign Moroccan territory in a break with decades of US policy, after Rabat agreed to re-establish relations with Israel under the so-called Abraham Accords.
Biden’s administration has been tight-lipped on how it will follow up on the move, which came just weeks after the Polisario Front declared a 1991 ceasefire null and void, sparking fears that the long-frozen conflict could flare up again.
Bourita on Tuesday called on European states to follow Spain in backing a Moroccan plan for autonomy there under Rabat’s sovereignty.
“We think it’s time for Europe … to get out of this comfort zone where people are just supporting a process that doesn’t mean supporting a solution,” he said.
“There is a consensus that the solution should be within Moroccan sovereignty and the Moroccan plan of autonomy.”
Blinken said Washington continues “to view Morocco’s autonomy plan as serious, credible and realistic”.
The US Department of State said in a report Monday that it supports the plan and the work of Staffan de Mistura, envoy of the United Nations – which sees the territory as a “non-self-governing territory”.