Obama meets King Salman in Saudi Arabia visit amid rifts

barack obama with saudi king salman
US President Barack Obama with Saudi King Salman

U.S. President Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Wednesday to seek joint action on security threats by Islamic State. Tension has surfaced between two countries for past few months. Obama’s fourth and likely last visit to the kingdom has been clouded by Saudi’s sore disappointment with Obama’s approach to the region, and doubts about Washington’s commitment to their security.

Tensions between Riyadh and Washington have increased sharply due to what Saudi Arabia sees as Obama’s disengagement from traditional US allies in the region and opening towards Iran. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is deeply dissatisfied over Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Saudi was also outraged over Obama’s comments published in the April edition of US magazine ‘The Atlantic’ that the Saudis needed to ‘share’ the Middle East with their Iranian rivals, because competition between Riyadh and Tehran has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

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. It also mentioned, “For Obama, the key issue in the Middle East is the fight against the Islamic State… For the House of Saud, the issue is Iran.”

Another major rift over the meet is a 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. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda were Saudi citizens. No Saudi complicity has been proven and the kingdom has never been formally implicated over the attacks.

Under the shadow of these differences, Obama sat for a meeting with King Salman on Wednesday in a bid to reassure the anxious ally. King Salman greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, under crystal chandeliers, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the small of incense wafted. Both offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for pictures prior to their two-hour private meeting.

“The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-U.S. summit that’s taking place tomorrow,” Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

King Salman offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth but possibly last trip here for face-to-face meetings since becoming president. “The feeling is mutual between us and the American people,” the king said through a translator.

Obama and King Salman exchanged views on a series of regional conflicts, and also explored U.S. concerns about Saudi human rights issues. “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.

“More broadly, the president and King discussed the challenges posed by Iran’s provocative activities in the region, agreeing on the importance of an inclusive approach to de-escalating regional conflicts,” the official statement from White House added.

They also talked about the need to reinforce a cessation of hostilities between Syrian government and opposition forces, and their support for a political transition in the war-torn country, the White House said.

However, The White House did not confirm whether both leaders discussed the legislation proposed in U.S. Congress that, if passed, could hold the kingdom responsible for any role in Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

After departing Riyadh on Thursday, Obama will travel to London and Hannover, Germany.

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