WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Friday asked Saudi King Abdullah for support in halting weapons smuggling into Gaza and underscored the importance of U.S.-Saudi ties in his first talks with the Arab ruler since becoming president, the White House said.
Obama spoke to Abdullah during a series of phone calls with foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the White House said in a statement.
The call to Abdullah coincided with the publication of an article by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, warning Obama the United States was putting Saudi ties at risk with its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an article on the Financial Times website, Turki said former President George W. Bush had left a “sickening legacy” in the Middle East.
“If the U.S. wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact — especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia — it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine,” Turki said.
Israel waged a 22-day offensive against the Islamist Hamas group in Gaza earlier this month, killing some 1,300 Palestinians and injuring another 5,000. The offensive, which Israel said was aimed at ending Hamas rocket attacks, left 13 Israelis dead, including three civilians killed by rockets.
Obama, who took office on Tuesday, named former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell as his envoy for the Middle East conflict on Thursday and vowed to aggressively pursue peace.
Hamas has said Obama’s policies were no different from Bush’s, and Israeli officials have said the new U.S. administration was likely to continue shunning Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
In his phone call with Abdullah, Obama underscored the “importance of a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship” and expressed his appreciation for the Saudi ruler’s support for interfaith dialogue and peace initiatives.
“He asked for Saudi support for efforts to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza and expressed interest in continuing counter-terrorism cooperation,” the White House said.
Obama also discussed the situation in Gaza with the British prime minister, the White House said. Obama and Brown also talked about the need to make the Afghan conflict a top priority, it said.
Obama told Brown he looked forward to strengthening the special relationship between Britain and the United States. They also discussed the global economic crisis and Obama’s desire to attend the upcoming G-20 summit in London.
In his call with Harper, Obama reiterated his pledge to visit Canada on his first trip outside the United States as president. He also discussed “the shared challenges we face in Afghanistan” as well as climate change and the global economy.