US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left) has coffee with Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Fahd bin Abdullah upon his arrival April 23 at King Khaled International Airport in Riyadh. (Jim Watson / AFP)
RIYADH — US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Riyadh on Tuesday to seal a major arms deal that will provide the Saudi kingdom with sophisticated missiles for its American-made fighter jets.
Hagel flew in from Jordan after a three-day visit to Israel in his first tour of the region since he took office two months ago.
He was scheduled to hold a working dinner Tuesday evening with Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. The talks will touch on the weapons agreement as well as the Syrian war and the disputed nuclear program of Saudi Arabiaís regional rival Iran, officials said.
Hagel had originally planned to meet former deputy defense minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, but the official was sacked by a royal decree Saturday. He was replaced by Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, who has been commander of Saudi naval forces since 2002.
Prince Khaled commanded Arab and Muslim armies in a US-led coalition that evicted Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. He had played a major role in sealing several arms deals with the United States, including a groundbreaking agreement in 2010 to sell Saudi Arabia 84 F-15 fighter jets, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 tactical Black Hawk helicopters and 36 light helicopters, as well as upgrades for 70 used F-15s.
The delivery of the weapons to the oil-rich kingdom, thought to be the largest ever single US arms sale, would be spread across 15 to 20 years. The long-term nature of that arms deal carried special symbolism for the US-Saudi relationship, as it ensures cooperation over years that will likely see a change in the kingdomís aging leadership.
The two countries share a common concern over Iranís role in the region and the threat posed by al-Qaida militants, officials say.
Hagelís visit comes as the United States unveiled plans last week to sell $10 billion worth of advanced missiles and aircraft to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to counter Iran.
Under the package, which is still being finalized, the US government will sell 26 F-16 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as well as sophisticated missiles for the warplanes, which officials would not specify.
The UAE part of the arms deal comes to nearly $5 billion, officials said.
Saudi Arabia would purchase the same advanced missiles provided to the UAE, allowing Saudi fighters to strike ground targets at a safe distance.
Hagel will next travel to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.