Obama hopes to mend fences in Saudi Arabia

Tension has heightened between the allies recently as US softens its stance towards Iran

US President Obama went straight from the Riyadh airport to the Erga Palace for bilateral talks with King Salman. The US leader is in Saudi Arabia to attend a summit of Gulf leaders.
US President Obama went straight from the Riyadh airport to the Erga Palace for bilateral talks with King Salman. The US leader is in Saudi Arabia to attend a summit of Gulf leaders.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH • US President Barack Obama held talks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman yesterday as he began a two-day visit hoping to ease tensions with the US ally.

Riyadh and its Sunni Arab Gulf allies have bristled at what they see as Washington's tilt towards regional rival Iran after Teheran's landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

Mr Obama, on what is expected to be his last visit to Saudi Arabia as President, is to attend a summit of Gulf leaders today focused on intensifying the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and resolving the wars in Syria and Yemen.

After landing at King Khalid International Airport in the early afternoon, Mr Obama went to the Erga Palace for a meeting with the 80-year-old King Salman.

The two exchanged brief greetings before heading into bilateral talks.

"I and the Saudi people are very pleased that you, Mr President, are visiting us," the king said.

Mr Obama responded that the United States was "very grateful for your hospitality". 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 Mr Obama's arrival as it did during his visit last year to pay his respects after the death of King Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah.

Tensions between Riyadh and Washington have increased sharply due to what Saudi Arabia sees as Mr Obama's disengagement from traditional US allies in the region and opening towards Iran.

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", Mr 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 the Islamic State... For the House of Saud, the issue is Iran."

Iran's emergence from international isolation after the nuclear deal has raised deep concerns among Gulf Arab states, which oppose Teheran indirectly in a range of Middle East conflicts.

The weeks ahead of the visit were marked by fiery exchanges from Saudis reacting with outrage to comments by Mr Obama published in the April edition of US magazine The Atlantic.

He said the Saudis need to "share" the Middle East with their Iranian rivals, adding that competition between Riyadh and Teheran has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Arab News columnist Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi yesterday 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 Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed.

Mr Obama has stated his opposition to the draft legislation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'Obama hopes to mend fences in Saudi Arabia'. Print Edition | Subscribe