Obama, Saudi King Meet as Disagreements Persist
by Mary Alice Salinas April 20, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama has met with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh amid increasingly tense relations and persistent differences over how to combat terrorism and regional conflicts.
They offered warm greetings before their two-hour closed meeting Wednesday at Erga Palace.
Salman told Obama he and the Saudi people are "very pleased" about the visit, the U.S. leader's fourth as president.
Obama responded, "The American people send their greetings." He also thanked the king for hosting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Thursday.
The United States and its Arab partners will address pressing issues facing the region at the summit, which will be attended by the GCC alliance of six Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
It appears fundamentally different priorities and strategies on combating terrorism and bringing stability to the region will keep Washington and Riyadh at odds on a range of key challenges.
The United States and much of Europe see Islamic State and al-Qaida as the top threats in the region and around the world. For many of the Gulf states, though, the main threat is Iran and the people and groups Tehran supports, like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shi'ite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Sunni-majority Saudis have led a costly military intervention against the Houthis.
The White House said Obama and GCC leaders will look at ways to step up cooperation, and "align" their policies and approaches in areas of mutual interest, such as countering terrorism and promoting peace and stability in places like Yemen and Syria.
Speaking Wednesday at the GCC Defense Ministerial at Diriyah Palace in Riyadh, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the United States and GCC nations were "building on that strong partnership" that has lasted for decades.
A senior defense official said the two major focuses of Carter's visit are countering Iran's destabilizing activities and defeating the Islamic State.
In an interview that raised questions about the state of U.S.-Saudi relations, Obama referred to the Saudis as "free riders" in the battle against Islamic State, implying Riyadh benefits from the U.S. security umbrella without sharing the burden.
'Nature of threat'
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, "The nature of the threat from ISIL [Islamic State] is not restricted to the targeting of one nation."
Rob Malley, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, says sectarian fights, like the one in Yemen, shift the focus away from the coalition's battle against Islamic State and al-Qaida. So, he said, the White House is seeking to de-escalate those conflicts.
Saudi Arabia, which faces shrinking revenues with the downturn in oil prices, is working to build up its missile systems as regional rival Iran continues to bolster its military capabilities.
"Iran does not stop improving its air, missiles and naval capabilities to threaten traffic through the Gulf," said Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mutual interests, cooperation
Despite philosophical differences, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is solid, according to Fahad Nazer, a senior political analyst with JTG Inc. and former adviser at the Saudi embassy in Washington.
"The two countries continue to support each other in the military campaigns that each of them is leading," Nazer said. "Not only has Saudi Arabia been participating in the ongoing U.S.-led airstrikes against the strongholds of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Syria, but it has done so in a very public fashion."
He pointed to U.S. intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led campaign against Houthi rebels.
"I think that many of the myriad mutual interests that have sustained this relationship since the 1940's will sustain it for the future," Nazer predicted.
White House officials agreed the two sides would continue to work as partners to combat terrorism, help secure the region and counter Iran's destabilizing actions.
"I don't think that there can be any confusion or ambiguity about who is our partner in the region and who isn't," Malley said.
After the summit, officials are expected to announce new defense assistance for the GCC and increased cooperation.
White House officials say the assistance will include a simplified process for transferring defense capabilities to Gulf nations, plans to boost the GCC's ballistic defense missile defense system and increased defense against cyber threats.
Expectations for significant outcomes from this summit are low, especially during a presidential election year.
"The Saudis obviously are looking at a situation where you have presidential candidates that as yet have not really provided any clear indication as to what the United States will be as an ally in the future," Cordesman said.
Cecily Hilleary in Washington contributed to this report.
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