London, Asharq Al-Awsat—US President Barack Obama used his one-day visit to Saudi Arabia to emphasize the “strong ties” between the two nations and to discuss key bilateral issues with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz.
Other senior Saudi officials attending the talks, which were held at the King’s Khuraim Gardens oasis retreat 35 miles (60 kilometers) north of Riyadh, included Crown Prince Salman, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir.
A White House statement issued on the occasion of the visit emphasized the two countries’ strong bilateral ties, highlighting that they have “endured for over 80 years.”
But sources of disagreement topped the agenda, months after senior Saudi officials began to warn about fraying ties between the two countries over their differing approaches to key regional issues, including Syria and Iran.
The Syrian war dominated President Obama’s two-hour meeting with King Abdullah. The three-year conflict has been one of the main points of contention in the unstable US–Saudi relationship, in particular over what is perceived in the region as a lack of US support for the rebels fighting Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad.
But “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,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters ahead of the meeting.
A Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Arab News, said that the Kingdom wants the US to “shift its position” on support for Syrian rebels. According to reports in the American media, the US is now considering permitting the sale of man-portable air defense systems (manpads) to the rebels, which would be a marked shift in its policy on supplying lethal weapons. The reconsideration of such assistance to the rebels does not seem to be connected to the president’s visit.
But in an interview with CBS Evening News broadcast the same day as his trip, Obama dismissed the idea that US military strikes could have brought an end to the conflict. “It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we’ve seen in Syria,” Obama said.
The US president also touched on Iran and the nuclear talks, another key source of disagreement, during his meeting with the King, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Speaking to Obama’s press pool en route to Riyadh, Rhodes told reporters, “We will be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region—its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf—that those concerns remain constant.”
President Obama wrapped up his visit Saturday morning with meetings with women’s rights campaigners, including Maha Al-Muneef, who won the State Department Women of Courage Award for her work combatting domestic violence.