You are here

Obama meets new Saudi king to shore up ties

US President Barack Obama led a heavyweight delegation to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet new King Salman and shore up ties that have suffered in recent years.

[RIYADH] US President Barack Obama led a heavyweight delegation to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet new King Salman and shore up ties that have suffered in recent years.

The longstanding allies remain bound by shared interests in regional stability and oil.

Since last year Saudi Arabia has been part of the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group.

But analysts say Riyadh has also grown dissatisfied with what it sees as a lack of US engagement in crises elsewhere in the region, including in Yemen and Libya, as Washington looks to Asia.

There has also been unease in the kingdom about Mr Obama's pursuit of a nuclear deal with Shi'ite-dominated Iran, the regional rival of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia.

Members of the US delegation, which crossed party lines and included former Bush-era officials, said they wanted to show support for the US-Saudi relationship.

"I believe it is important that we demonstrate to the Saudis the importance that they represent to us," said James Baker, secretary of state during the first Gulf War against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"This is an extraordinarily critical and sensitive time in the Middle East when everything seems to be falling apart. And the kingdom in some way is becoming an island of stability," said Mr Baker.

Mr Obama and his 29-member delegation arrived for a four-hour stop from India where he cut short a state visit following the death of Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, on Friday.

Saudi television showed King Salman, 79, welcoming Mr Obama and his wife Michelle at the bottom of a red-carpeted ramp before a military band played the US and Saudi national anthems.

In contrast to Saudi women, required to dress head-to-toe in black, Michelle Obama wore dark slacks and a blue top with her hair uncovered.

King Salman's heir Crown Prince Moqren and Mohammed bin Nayef, the powerful interior minister who is second in line to the throne, were among those greeting the Americans.

The US president then boarded a black limousine taking him for talks and dinner with Salman at central Riyadh's Erga Palace, the king's private residence where the smell of incense hung heavily in the air.

"Good to see you," Mr Obama repeatedly said to his Saudi hosts before they dined on Arabic and Western dishes including shish tawook and baked lobster before leaving the kingdom.

Authorities deployed armoured vehicles, police cars and radar throughout the city to secure Mr Obama's visit, an AFP reporter observed.

Mr Obama last visited Saudi Arabia in March, when he held talks with Abdullah.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the new trip was an "opportunity to both pay respects to the legacy of King Abdullah, who was a close partner with the United States and also to touch base on some of the issues where we're working together with the Saudis," which include the Islamic State group, Yemen, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

IS, a Sunni extremist group, released a video celebrating the death of the "tyrant Abdullah" and said that "Allah permitting" they will invade the Arabian Peninsula soon, SITE Intelligence Group said Tuesday.

Mr Baker, who served under president George Bush, said there are "some problems" in the US-Saudi relationship.

"But we will be in a hell of a lot better shape to handle those problems if the relationship is as strong again as it was when I was in office," he said, adding that he has always thought of King Salman as "very pro-US" and a "no nonsense guy."

According to Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, the Saudis would like Washington to exercise more pressure to get the protagonists in Yemen and Libya back to negotiations.

He said Riyadh would also like what it sees as discrimination against Sunnis in Iraq to be addressed, to eliminate the underlying reasons for the emergence of IS.

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under George W. Bush, joined the US contingent which included current Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan and General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command.

They had all accompanied Obama to India but Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain joined the president especially for his Saudi trip.

Mr McCain, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the kingdom was emerging "as the major bulwark" against efforts by Iran to expand its influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.

"There is no doubt that the Iranians are on the move," Mr McCain said.

Mr Obama is the latest leader to visit Riyadh since Friday.

His reception was the most elaborate but sheikhs, presidents and prime ministers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas all came to pay their respects.

Australia's governor general Peter Cosgrove also arrived on Tuesday.