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Kerry arrives in Saudi for key Gulf talks

Kerry's visit comes against the backdrop of potential regional shifts with Turkey-Saudi relations reportedly turning 'a new page'
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh on Thursday (AFP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia early Thursday for talks with Gulf allies on Middle East turmoil and the battle against militants.

Kerry was to brief Gulf foreign ministers about his latest negotiations with Iran to seal a nuclear deal which the United States believes will make the region and the world safer.

He arrived from Switzerland where he spent three days in talks with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Sunni Gulf nations are wary about the growing rapprochement between Shiite-dominated Iran and Washington, which is seeking the deal to rein in Tehran's nuclear programme.

With instability sweeping much of the region from Syria to Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Kerry's talks in Saudi Arabia will focus on "things that we can do together to strengthen our joint security framework," a senior State Department official told reporters.

The so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany is trying to strike an accord that would prevent Tehran - Riyadh's regional rival - from developing a nuclear bomb.

In return, the West would ease punishing sanctions on Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is purely civilian.

Kerry's visit comes against the backdrop of reinvigorated relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, an alliance which a top Turkish official said on Wednesday has the potential to stabilise the region.

"Turkey and Saudi Arabia believe that sectarian policies and communal strife have a big toll on the region and have to be replaced by a policy of regional peace and cooperation," Ibrahim Kalin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief advisor, wrote in Turkey's Daily Sabah.  

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are taking part in the US-led coalition to fight militants from the Islamic State group, which has captured a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The militants have claimed widespread atrocities including the beheading of foreign hostages, and the burning alive of a caged Jordanian fighter pilot.

Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against IS in September, but a Western diplomatic source said the number of Saudi sorties is now "not as many as it has been before."

The kingdom has agreed to launch with the US a facility for training and equipping vetted members of what the US calls "moderate" armed opposition from Syria, under a long-planned effort to take on the IS group.

Yemen's instability

The militants as well as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are fighting a civil war against President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government, which is supported by Tehran-backed Hezbollah troops as well as members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Riyadh, supporting the rebellion, had been angered that the US appeared to sideline moves to reach a political solution under which Assad would give up power.

This week, the US announced a shift in its Syria strategy: the country will now train rebel groups to fight IS militants, not Assad's government. 

But a US official insisted: "We're working very closely in Syria with our partners in the Gulf to confront not only ISIL [IS], but to make very clear that we believe that we won't see peace and security in Syria unless there is a change in the regime in Damascus."

Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia, has been a source of growing regional instability after the Houthi rebel group seized power in September in the capital Sanaa from which deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi fled last month for Aden.

Kerry charged last week that "critical" support for the militia by Iran had contributed to the collapse of Yemen's government.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are deeply suspicious of the Houthis, fearing they will take Yemen into Iran's orbit - although Saudi Arabia reportedly funded the Houthis early on in a bid to prevent the rise of Yemen's Islamist al-Islah party.

The US closed its embassy in Sanaa, and is now preparing to base its Yemen ambassador out of the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, while Saudi and other Gulf countries have moved their embassies to Aden.

Washington has stressed it will not follow to the southern port city.

"We want to (be) very clear in saying that US policy supports a unified Yemen," the State Department official said.

Kerry will meet with new Saudi King Salman, following up on their first talks after the 23 January death of his predecessor Abdullah.

The top US diplomat was part of a heavyweight delegation led by President Barack Obama which held talks in Riyadh five days after Salman acceded to the throne.