U.S. President Barack Obama met Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to push for increased efforts from them against DAESH, despite strains in their ties with Washington. Making what is likely his final presidential visit to the historic American allies, Obama is seeking to overcome recent tensions with Arab Gulf states rooted in U.S. overtures to their regional rival Iran. With DAESH suffering a series of recent setbacks in areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, Washington is seeking more help from oil-rich Gulf monarchies to keep up the pressure. After bilateral talks with Saudi King Salman the day before, Obama posed Thursday for a summit photo with six leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries before heading into four hours of talks at a royal palace. In a highly unusual move, Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria did not broadcast the start of the meeting, just as it did not show Obama's airport arrival on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states belong to the U.S.-led coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against DAESH in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014. But on Wednesday U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in Riyadh with Obama, urged them "to do more." He pointed specifically to Iraq, calling for more support for Baghdad, which is battling political chaos and an economic crisis as well as the extremists. Sunni support for "multi-sectarian governance and reconstruction" in Shiite-majority Iraq will be critical to ensuring the defeat of DAESH, the Pentagon chief said after meeting his Gulf counterparts.
Gulf states are also deeply skeptical of Obama's willingness to negotiate with Shiite powerhouse Iran, and fear that last year's nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic will lead to a rebalancing of regional stances at their expense. Disputes over Iran were a major part of Obama's talks with Salman on Wednesday. Obama spent two hours with the king and top Saudi officials amid strains in the relationship.
Obama also held direct talks on Wednesday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). U.S. military aircraft are based in the UAE, the second largest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia, and its Jebel Ali port in Dubai frequently hosts visiting U.S. navy warships. Thursday's talks are likely to touch on fighting in neighboring Yemen. A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that started earlier this month has been repeatedly breeched by the Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of Yemen's internationally recognized government and by Shiite rebels and their allies. The Saudi effort has sought to drive the Houthi Shiite rebels from the capital and other parts of the deeply impoverished country. The U.S. is not carrying out airstrikes in that campaign but has provided refueling and other logistical help.
In Baghdad earlier this week Carter announced that the United States would send more troops and make Apache attack helicopters available to Iraq as its forces push a renewed fight against DAESH militants aimed at eventually retaking the DAESH hub of Mosul. Analysts said Syria would also be on the table at the summit, with Washington likely pushing Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies to influence the Syrian opposition, which they have long supported, to abide by the cease-fire. "I think Syria will obviously be a big focus, ensuring that the Saudis focus their diplomatic energies on the cease-fire, perhaps soliciting more Saudi support on refugees. But then also asking the Saudis to do more on DAESH," Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said. Washington hopes the cease-fire and peace talks in Geneva can help resolve Syria's broader conflict to focus attention on the fight against DAESH and other militant groups. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also joined Obama in Riyadh where he held talks with Saudi Arabia's powerful deputy crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman. The full-scale diplomatic offensive follows months of rising tensions between the United States and Arab Gulf nations, which have for decades enjoyed strong security ties with Washington. Obama's perceived tilt toward their arch-rival Iran has been of particular concern for them, with Gulf states worried that Tehran will be emboldened to seek a still larger regional role after the lifting of sanctions under its landmark nuclear deal with major powers led by the United States.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, told CNN that Obama's conduct and declarations have made Saudi Arabia realize that the relationship has changed. "My personal view is that America has changed," he said. "How far we can go with our dependence on America? How much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership? What is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together? These are things that we have to recalibrate," he said. He said he did not think the next president should be expected to return to "the yesteryear days when things were different."