RIYADH - US President Barack Obama sought Friday to allay Riyadh’s criticism of his policies on Syria and Iran, telling the Saudi king their two countries remain in lockstep on strategic interests.
He also assured King Abdullah that the US “won’t accept a bad deal” with Iran, as global powers negotiate a treaty reining in Tehran’s controversial nuclear programme. Obama arrived from Italy to meet for some two hours with the monarch of the oil-rich kingdom on a royal estate outside Riyadh on the last leg of a six-day tour.
The US president told the king that “he believes that our strategic interests remain very much aligned” with those of Saudi Arabia, a senior US administration official told reporters.
Earlier, White House officials said discussions would focus on ways to “empower” Syria’s moderate opposition.
“One of the main topics of conversation” would be “how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to (President Bashar) Assad,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on board Air Force One.
Rhodes also said US-Saudi ties have been improving thanks to cooperation on ways to support Syria’s opposition.
“Our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall (autumn) when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy,” he said.
Saudi Arabia was dismayed by Obama’s 11th-hour decision last year not to carry out military strikes against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons attacks.
But officials shot down as untrue reports that the US administration was planning to give Riyadh a green light to ship heavy weapons, known as MANPADs, to the beleaguered moderate Syrian opposition.
“We have not changed our position on providing MANPADS to the opposition,” a second senior administration official said, acknowledging “this is a proliferation risk”. “This wasn’t a focus of the meeting,” he insisted. Riyadh also has strong reservations about revived efforts by Washington and other major world powers to negotiate with Iran.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions, views a November deal between world powers and Iran on its nuclear programme as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.
The interim agreement curbs Iran’s controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief, and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.
Saudi Arabia, the largest power in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, fears that a possible US withdrawal from the Middle East and a diplomatic overture towards Iran would further feed Tehran’s regional ambitions.
Iranian-Saudi rivalry crystallised with the Syrian conflict: Tehran backs Assad’s regime, while several GCC states support the rebellion.
- ‘Reassurance visit’ -
Obama’s stand on events reshaping the region “have strained relations, but without causing a complete break,” said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.
US security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama meeting King Abdullah could “help clear the air on some misunderstandings”.
“However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit,” he added.
The two leaders were also expected to discuss Egypt, another bone of contention since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, who was a staunch US and Saudi ally.
The kingdom was angered by the partial freezing of US aid to Egypt after the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July — a move hailed by Riyadh.
Meanwhile, US officials said Obama did not raise the issue of human rights with the king despite appeals from US lawmakers and rights groups.
Dozens of US lawmakers had urged Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations” and efforts by women activists to challenge its ban on female drivers.
“We do have a lot of significant concerns about the human rights situation” in Saudi Arabia, the second administration official said, mentioning in particular “women’s freedoms”.
Saudi activists have urged women to defy the driving ban and get behind the wheel on Saturday, the second day of Obama’s visit.