Obama in Riyadh to mend fences with Saudis, boost fight against the Islamic State
The US President arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday. King Salman did not meet him at the airport but at the palace where the two had a long tête-à-tête. Today, Obama and Gulf States leaders met terrorism and Iran. A US congressional report on 11 September could further strain US-Saudi relations.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – US President Barack Obama today met with Gulf leaders – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – in Saudi Arabia to push for an intensified campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group and al-Qaeda despite strains in US-Saudi ties.
With a few months left before his term ends, Obama is trying to mend fences with Mideast states after the Iran nuclear deal gave Tehran a greater international leeway.
The US president, who yesterday met for two hours with Saudi King Salman, came with a high-level US delegation that included Defence Secretary Ash Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and CIA Director John Brennan.
Today’s agenda included three sessions. One is aimed at fostering regional stability. A second focused on counterterrorism efforts including efforts to defeat al-Qaida and IS. A third session was centred on Iran, which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states see as a destabilising rival in the region.
For many analysts and experts, the rise of jihadist movements and Islamic terrorism owes a lot to the ambiguous attitude of many Arab governments (like Qatar and the Saudis) towards such groups.
For the US, along with fighting IS, rebuilding cities freed from Jihadis tops the agenda. Defence Secretary Carter asked the Gulf countries to play a political and financial role in such efforts, especially in the case of Iraq, which is going through severe economic crisis, and remains under the threat of extremist groups. Such aid would counter Iranian influence via Shia militias in Lebanon, Yemen, and even Iraq.
Gulf leaders however have not forgiven Obama for his reluctance and ambiguity in addressing local issues (as well as his preference for other regions, like Asia-Pacific), not to mention the Iran nuclear deal. The war in Syria has not helped smooth relations either.
Signs of a less-than-enthusiastic welcome for Obama were visible from the start if his visit to Saudi Arabia. Stepping off of Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted not by King Salman but by a lower-ranking royal, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh.
Conversely and significantly, ahead of Obama's arrival, Saudi state television showed the king personally greeting senior officials from other Gulf nations arriving at the King Salman Air Base.
For one security analyst, the unusual move was intended to send a clear message that the Saudis have little faith in the US president, and that they are waiting for the outcome of the upcoming presidential election at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, a 28-page section of the congressional report on the 11 September attacks that some believe implicates Saudi Arabia in the planning might further complicate US-Saudi relations.
The Saudis vehemently deny the charges, whilst the Obama administration is still reviewing its release.
The attention in the United States on the withheld pages comes as Congress debates legislation that would allow the families of US terror victims to sue foreign governments if they are implicated in acts of terrorism, including Saudi Arabia.
The US administration opposes the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Obama himself has said he is against the bill because it could expose the United States to lawsuits from citizens of other countries.