Obama in Saudi Arabia on fence-mending visit

Published 20.04.2016 22:17
Updated 20.04.2016 23:27

President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman discussed the ties between their nations during a two-hour long meeting on Wednesday, a conversation that touched on conflicts around the Middle East and U.S. concerns about human rights in the kingdom.

"The two leaders reaffirmed the historic friendship and deep strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia," the White House said in a statement, noting the leaders discussed Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, among other issues.

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on Wednesday for a summit meeting with King Salman and his fellow Gulf Arab leaders. Obama met with Salman on late Wednesday and with the heads of the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, on Thursday. Obama comes to the world's top oil exporter for a fourth and likely last time as president hoping to reassure it and other Gulf allies of Washington's commitment to their security, and to seek ways to reduce sectarian tensions in the region. However, his meetings come in the shadow of disagreements that have further cooled an already strained atmosphere between the old allies ahead of the talks. Unlike in previous visits, Obama's arrival in Riyadh was not aired on live television. His meeting comes ahead of a summit with other Gulf Arab leaders on Thursday and with regional tensions with Iran likely to be high on the agenda. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman which are ruled mostly by Sunni Muslim monarchies, with the exception of Oman. The White House shares the view of Gulf Arab states that Tehran plays a destabilizing role, but has said it hopes to bring them and Iran to develop a "cold peace" in which their rivalry does not further inflame smoldering Middle East tensions.

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. 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 DAESH. For the House of Saud, the issue is Iran." 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 need to "share" the Middle East with their Iranian rivals, adding that competition between Riyadh and Tehran has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Arab News columnist Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi on Wednesday 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 US courts over the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed.

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