ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.S. Secretary of Commerce is in the Middle East where she said Sunday she will tell officials from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that closer economic cooperation with Washington is a way to build deeper security ties with the United States.
Penny Pritzker's visit comes just weeks before President Barack Obama is scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia to meet King Abdullah in an effort to patch over strained relations due to U.S. policy on Iran and Syria. It will be Obama's first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2009.
For Pritzker, it is her first trip outside of North America as Secretary of Commerce. Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire and business executive, was sworn in as Secretary in June of last year. She is the first U.S. Secretary of Commerce to visit the Gulf region with a trade mission in 15 years.
Pritzker said her message to the Saudis is that "our American companies want to be here."
"I believe businesses can be a bridge for prosperity and security and so that's basically our message," Pritzker said in an interview with The Associated Press during her first leg of the Mideast tour in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia has expressed a desire to build new alliances after outrage over Washington's rapprochement with its regional rival Iran, which Saudi officials said threatens the kingdom's security.
Pritzker said her department prioritized this region because the Obama Administration puts a high value on America's relationship with the Gulf.
In remarks to business leaders and officials at a luncheon in Abu Dhabi, Pritzker said the U.S. is committed to the Gulf's security and stability, and is working with allies like the UAE through the sales of billions of dollars' worth of defense equipment and fighter jets.
"That commitment will not change even as the United States becomes more energy independent. In fact, America has a growing interest in making sure that oil markets throughout the world remain stable and well-supplied," she said.
As a result of new exploration technologies, the U.S. will become the world's largest oil producer by around 2020, temporarily overtaking Saudi Arabia, which relies heavily on oil exports to support its economy.
The U.S. is also eyeing the spending power of its oil-rich Gulf Arab allies and wants them to boost investments in America as part of the Obama Administration's "Open for Business Agenda."
In 2006, UAE-backed port operator DP World abandoned plans to operate in the U.S. after several American lawmakers expressed concerns about Mideast ownership and port security.
Pritzker told the AP perceptions in the U.S. have changed since then.
"We value these relationships and we value not just our long-standing security relationships, but we also value our economic relationship and that's one of the reasons that I'm here," she said.
She is traveling with 21 U.S. companies, including General Electric and Dow Chemical, with a focus on environmental technologies, clean energy and project management.
She says that of around 11.3 million jobs supported by U.S. exports around the world, 200,000 U.S. jobs depend on exports to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
U.S. exports to the Middle East topped $70 billion in 2013, an increase of 7.5 percent from the previous year.
The UAE was the top regional importer of U.S. goods in the Middle East with $24.6 billion. Second was Saudi Arabia at almost $19 billion. Despite an almost five percent decline in imports last year from 2012, Egypt remains the third largest Arab import market of U.S. goods at $5.22 billion, according to The National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.
Executive Vice President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce David Chavern said that the Gulf is a place where U.S. companies can find growth and stability that is lacking in other parts of the region.
In late 2012, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce organized its largest trade mission ever to the Middle East when it took more than 100 companies to Egypt. Chavern said there is still a great deal of interest in Egypt because of its size, with a population of around 90 million people. The chamber said it is planning another trip June 3 with about 50 companies after presidential elections and a new government is in place.