Obama Stands by Tough Words for Saudis in Meeting With King

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  • No apology for remarks about `free riders,' U.S. official says
  • Obama is on a two-day trip to Riyadh to meet with Arab leaders

How Fraught Are U.S., Saudi Arabian Relations?

President Barack Obama reassured Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that the U.S. is his country’s ally during a private meeting in Riyadh on Wednesday, but made no apology for recent criticism of Saudi policies and insisted that its government must learn to co-exist with rival Iran, a U.S. official said.

Obama’s two-day stop in Riyadh, perhaps his last visit to the Middle East as president, is intended to reassure regional allies that the U.S. is committed to the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group and is not improving its relationship with Iran at their expense.

In an interview published by The Atlantic magazine this month, the president complained about U.S. allies he called "free riders" who he believes don’t contribute enough to international military and humanitarian missions. Many people in Saudi Arabia, including members of the royal family, interpreted the remark as a reference to their country. Obama also said the Saudis must "share" their region with Iran, and was reported describing the U.S. relationship with the kingdom as "complicated."

Obama met with King Salman at the beginning of a week-long trip to Saudi Arabia, the U.K. and Germany. He attended a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a union of Arab Persian Gulf states, on Thursday.

"The core of the relationship" with Saudi Arabia "remains very solid," Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said at a briefing in Riyadh on Thursday. "We certainly understand that this is their neighborhood. Our point is simply that concern with Iran should not foreclose the opportunity for diplomatic engagement."

Rhodes said talks on Thursday with Arab leaders focused on bolstering their special forces, ballistic missile defense and maritime interdiction capabilities, steps the U.S. believes will better prepare the countries to defend against "asymmetric" threats posed by Iran and Islamic State.

Human Rights

Their discussion covered several regional conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the West Bank, according to the White House.

The two leaders discussed human rights, focused on the Saudi judicial system, where they encountered their most serious disagreements, the official said. In a report last year, Amnesty International said hundreds of people have been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia after unfair trials that “blatantly flout international standards.”

The kingdom executed a leading Shiite cleric in January, leading to mass protests in Tehran and the torching of the Saudi embassy.

The president emphasized the importance of Saudi Arabia co-existing peacefully with Iran, rather than using its military to engage in sectarian conflicts, the official said. The civil wars in Yemen and in Syria are to some extent proxy battles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposite sides in both countries.

The two oil-producing nations have also been at loggerheads economically, unable to come to an agreement on freezing oil production to boost the sagging price of the commodity. Obama told Salman during their meeting that he welcomed Saudi Arabia’s "ambitious" plan to diversify its economy and "indicated that he wants to be supportive in any way we can," Rhodes said.

The kingdom will announce details of the plan on April 25, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said. The country intends to publicly sell shares in the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, and transform it into an energy and industrial conglomerate, the prince has said.

The Saudis indicated they were open to diplomacy with Iran to address the Syria and Yemen conflicts, which have both caused humanitarian crises, the official said.

Both Obama and the Saudi king oppose a bill pending in the U.S. Congress that would allow families of victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia if the government there or its officials are found to have played a role in the attacks. The legislation didn’t come up during the meeting, Rhodes said.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who perpetrated the attacks were Saudi citizens. The leaders did not discuss a classified 28-page section of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks that is believed to detail Saudi government connections to the hijackers, the official said. The Obama administration is considering declassifying the document.