Obama in Saudi Arabia on fence-mending visit
RIYADH – Agence France-PresseU.S. President Barack Obama held talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on April 20 as he began a two-day visit hoping to ease tensions with the historic U.S. ally.
Riyadh and its Sunni Arab Gulf allies have bristled at what they see as Washington’s tilt toward regional rival Iran after Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers.
Obama, on what is expected to be his last visit to Saudi Arabia as president, is to attend a summit of Gulf leaders on April 21 focused on intensifying the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and resolving the wars in Syria in Yemen.
Following Obama’s arrival, the two exchanged brief greetings before heading into bilateral talks.
“I and the Saudi people are very pleased that you, Mr. President, are visiting us,” Salman said. Obama responded that the United States was “very grateful for your hospitality.”
The president was earlier welcomed at the airport by Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz, the governor of Riyadh, after walking down a red carpet on the stairs from Air Force One.
Unusually, Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria did not broadcast Obama’s arrival as it did during his visit last year to pay respects after the death of Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah.
Tensions between Riyadh and Washington have increased sharply due to what Saudi Arabia sees as Obama’s disengagement from traditional U.S. allies in the region and opening toward Iran.
Though the visit is being touted as an “alliance-building” effort, “it will just as likely highlight how far Washington and Riyadh have drifted apart in the past eight years,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
“For Obama, the key issue in the Middle East is the fight against the Islamic State [ISIL] ... For the House of Saud, the issue is Iran,” Henderson said.
Iran’s emergence from international isolation after the nuclear deal has raised deep concerns among Gulf Arab states, who oppose Tehran indirectly in a range of Middle East conflicts.
The weeks ahead of the visit were marked by fiery exchanges from Saudis reacting with outrage to comments by Obama published in the April edition of U.S. magazine The Atlantic.
He said the Saudis needed to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian rivals, adding that competition between Riyadh and Tehran had helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
On April 20, Arab News columnist Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi became the latest Saudi commentator to lament “the United States’ disengagement from assisting in resolving the region’s problems.”
Also clouding the visit is congressional draft legislation that would potentially allow the Saudi government to be sued in U.S. courts over the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed.
Saudi Arabia has reportedly warned it could sell off several hundred billion dollars’ worth of American assets if the bipartisan bill passes.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the attacks were Saudi citizens. No Saudi complicity in the al-Qaeda attacks has been proven and the kingdom has never been formally implicated.
Obama has stated his opposition to the draft legislation.
Ahead of the visit, the White House emphasized the strength of an alliance that has endured more than 70 years.
“There have always been complexities in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. There’s been a core to that relationship in which we cooperate on shared interests like counterterrorism,” said Ben Rhodes, a close adviser to Obama, whose fourth trip to the kingdom comes in the final months of his mandate.
Despite worries in the Gulf, Washington remains a major weapons supplier and has bases in the region.
Gulf leaders are awaiting further military aid along with assistance to counter potential cyberattacks.
Obama will be joined at the April 21 summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are part of a U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, where the jihadist group has seized swathes of territory.
Riyadh also leads a separate Arab military coalition that for 13 months has supported Yemen’s government in its battle against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels.