U.S. President Barack Obama arrived to Riyadh on Wednesday to convene with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and other Gulf allies, joint action on security threats including Iran and ISIS.
Obama’s visit comes with the increasingly strained relations with the Saudis and Gulf Arab states who are frustrated with his approach to the region, especially in Iran and Syria.
The American president has come to the world’s top oil exporter for a fourth and likely last visit, hoping to reassure Salman and other Gulf leaders, whom he will meet on Thursday, of Washington’s commitment to their security.
After a low-key arrival in Riyadh, Obama was greeted by the Saudi ruler greeted in a grand foyer at Erga Palace. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for pictures before starting their private two-hour meeting in a reception room.
“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 that starts Thursday.
“The feeling is mutual between us and the American people,” the king said speaking thru a translator.
Most of the Gulf Arab monarchies have in private been sorely disappointed by Obama’s presidency, regarding it as a period in which the United States has drawn back from the region, allowing their arch rival Iran to expand its influence.
For his part, Obama has expressed his desire to convince Gulf states to arrive at a “cold peace” with Iran that would douse sectarian tensions and allow all sides to focus on what he sees as a greater threat emanating from ISIS.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan were among Obama’s entourage, demonstrating the focus on security in the president’s agenda with his Gulf counterparts.
The U.S. president will attend the GCC summit on Thursday, holding a group of monarchies including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The White House said the summit would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against ISIS, al-Qaida and Iran. Talks are also expected to address the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen.
These countries consider Iran a threat to their security and say its involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen has fueled conflict and deepened sectarian divisions.
That tension surfaced again on Wednesday when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei attacked Riyadh’s attempts to isolate its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, in a series of fiery Tweets.
The White House shares the view of Gulf Arab states that Tehran plays a destabilizing role, but its push for the nuclear deal Iran agreed with world powers last year raised fears in Riyadh that Washington was disregarding their concerns.
Before Obama met King Salman, in an ornate room in a Riyadh palace, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had talks with his Gulf Arab counterparts on ways of countering Iranian influence and fighting the ISIS terrorist group.
They agreed on joint cooperation towards improving Gulf missile defense, special forces and maritime security, but no new deals were announced.
The GCC secretary general said the bloc and the United States would stage joint maritime patrols to stop weapons smuggling to Iran.
Obama’s words of reassurance follow a series of top-level meetings between U.S. and Gulf officials in recent years in which Washington aimed to get across the same message.
He and Salman last met in the United States in September, a meeting that followed a Camp David summit with Gulf leaders in May.
Obama is set to meet with the leaders of Britain, France and Italy in Hanover on Monday with ISIS and other security issues high on the agenda.