Obama Visits Saudi King to Reassure on Syria, Iran Stance

U.S. President Barack Obama met with Saudi King Abdullah seeking to reassure a key regional partner that negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program won’t undercut Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests.

Also on the agenda for the talks at the king’s desert compound were steps to strengthen, militarily and politically, groups opposed to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad while isolating extremists, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president.

“We will be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region -- its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf -- that those concerns remain constant,” Rhodes said before the meeting.

“We’re not in any way negotiating those issues in the nuclear talks,” he said in advance of today’s meeting.

Obama arrived in Riyadh earlier today after spending the week in Europe where the crisis in Ukraine dominated discussions with other leaders. For the final stop of a six-day trip abroad, the U.S. president shifted his attention to the other pressing foreign policy issues confronting his administration including the Syrian civil war, Iranian nuclear talks and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Last Visit

Obama faced a tougher audience compared to when he last visited Abdullah in Riyadh in 2009. That year, Obama visited Saudi Arabia as part of the same trip on which he delivered a Cairo speech pledging “a new beginning” with the Muslim world. He followed up on that address with a trip to Istanbul to speak directly with Muslim youth.

Obama and Abdullah met today at the desert retreat under a massive jeweled chandelier, in front of table full of dates and chocolates. They made no public statements.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been strained by the administration’s reluctance to pursue military action in Syria, secret Iran negotiations and its support for the Arab Spring overthrow of former Egyptian president and ally Hosni Mubarak.

There’s been a “basic breakdown of trust coming from Riyadh,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official. “They just don’t feel they have a reliable partner here.”

The boom in U.S. energy production may reshape the U.S.- Saudi alliance by making oil less of a bargaining chip. That would give Obama a freer hand on Middle East policy.

Closer Coordination

Energy production didn’t come up in the president’s conversation with the king, according to an Obama administration official who briefed reporters after the meeting and asked for anonymity to discuss the details.

Rhodes said beforehand that closer coordination regarding Syria in recent months has improved relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.

“That’s part of the reason why I think our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy,” he said.

Saudi rulers have criticized the U.S. decision to abandon plans for military action against the Assad regime.

The official said the White House hasn’t made a decision about whether to allow the Saudis to equip opposition forces with compact missile launcher systems that can be used against low-flying planes and helicopters. The administration has expressed concerns that such weapons might fall into the hands of extremists who could use them against the U.S. or its allies.

Opposition Arms

The administration official said Obama’s meeting with Abdullah wasn’t designed to coordinate details about types of assistance to supply and the missile system, known as manpads, didn’t specifically come up.

Obama emphasized in the meeting that U.S. and Saudi strategic interests are aligned, including combatting terrorism, keeping the flow of oil through region secure, and dealing with Iran.

The Saudis want reassurance that Obama isn’t naïve about Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons and the U.S. isn’t seeking accommodation, said Danin. It hits at the regional, religious and philosophical Sunni-Shiite divisions, with the Saudis seeing the U.S. aligning with the Shiites, he said.

“For Saudis it’s not about just nuclear weapons,” he said. “We should be standing with the Sunnis. There’s incredulity.”

Obama and Abdullah didn’t discuss human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the administration official said.

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