Flying by helicopter to the king's desert camp, Obama underscored
the importance of Washington's relationship with the world's largest
oil exporter in a two-hour meeting that focused on the Middle East
but did not touch on energy or human rights.
Last year senior Saudi officials warned of a "major shift" away from
the United States after bitter disagreements over its response to
the "Arab spring" uprisings, efforts to negotiate with Iran, and
Washington's decision not to intervene militarily in Syria, where
Riyadh wants more American support for rebels.
While the two leaders discussed "tactical differences", they both
agreed their strategic interests were aligned, a U.S. official told
reporters after the meeting.
"I think it was important to have the chance to come look him (King
Abdullah) in the eye and explain how determined the president is to
stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," the official said.
The meeting was a chance to assure the king that "we won't accept a
bad deal and that the focus on the nuclear issue doesn't mean we are
not concerned about, or very much focused on, Iran's other
destabilizing activities in the region."
The leaders had a full discussion about Syria, where a
three-year-old civil war has killed an estimated 140,000 people and
Overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia is backing the insurgents
in their battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is
supported by Riyadh's rival, Shi'ite power Iran.
The official said both countries shared the objective of a political
transition in Syria and supporting moderate opposition to Assad.
Riyadh has long differed from Washington about Obama's reluctance to
supply rebels with surface-to-air missiles, sometimes known as
The Washington Post reported on Friday that the United States was
ready to increase covert aid to Syrian rebels under a new plan that
included training efforts by the CIA, and was considering supplying
The White House has not closed the door to the possibility of such a
move in the future, but officials said U.S. qualms about providing
those weapons to rebels had not changed.
"We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons,
including MANPADS, that could pose a proliferation risk if
introduced into Syria," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes
told reporters on Air Force One during Obama's flight from Rome to
Riyadh. "We continue to have those concerns."
Saudi officials made no immediate comment on the meeting but Saudi
state media said the talks were focused on Middle East peace efforts
and the Syrian crisis.
The elderly king, accompanied by a number of senior princes, had
what appeared to be an oxygen tube connected to his nose at the
start of the meeting at his desert farm at Rawdat Khuraim northeast
of the capital Riyadh.
Saudi state television showed Obama, accompanied by U.S. Secretary
of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice,
listening attentively while King Abdullah spoke, gesticulating with
both hands as he made a point.
While Saudi Arabia supplies less petroleum to the United States than
in the past, safeguarding its energy output remains important to
Washington, as does its cooperation in combating al Qaeda.
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The Saudis, meanwhile, want more reassurance on American intentions
regarding talks over Iran's nuclear program, which could lead to a
deal that lifts sanctions on Tehran in exchange for concessions on
its atomic facilities.
Riyadh fears such a deal could come at the expense of Sunni Arabs in
the Middle East, some of whom fear that Shi'ite Iran would take
advantage of any reduction in international pressure to spread its
influence by supporting co-religionists.
Major powers suspect
Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons
capability. Tehran says its work is aimed only at generating
An editorial in the semi-official al-Riyadh newspaper on Friday said
Obama does not know Iran as well as the Saudis do, and could not
"convince us that Iran will be peaceful".
"Our security comes first and no one can argue with us about it," it
In the run-up to the visit, officials had said Obama would aim to
persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly
disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old
ally were unfounded.
Contrary to Saudi preferences for Syria, Obama has shown himself
wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Muslim world after
working hard to end or reduce American military involvement in Iraq
BETTER COORDINATION, HUMAN RIGHTS
Rhodes said coordination with the kingdom on policies toward Syria,
particularly on providing help to the Syrian rebels, had improved.
"That's part of the reason why I think our relationship with the
Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when we
had some tactical differences about our Syria policy," he said.
The Saudi king was accompanied in the talks by Crown Prince Salman,
Prince Muqrin, who was named second-in-line to rule on Thursday, and
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Powerful Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who recently
met top U.S. officials in Washington to discuss Syria, was not
Also present was the new American ambassador in Riyadh, Joseph
Westphal, whose appointment was confirmed by the Senate late on
Wednesday, apparently in order to let him attend Friday's meeting.
U.S. officials said Obama had not had time to raise concerns about
the kingdom's human rights record. They said Washington would
continue to press Riyadh about its concerns, which include women's
rights. Obama will award Dr. Maha Al-Muneef with the Secretary of
State's International Woman of Courage Award in Riyadh on Saturday,
the White House said.
(Additional reporting Lesley Wroughton and Angus McDowall in Riyadh
and Sami Aboudi in Dubai; editing by William Maclean and Ken Wills)
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