Obama Visits Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Presses ISIS Defense – Businessweek

President Barack Obama travels Tuesday to
Saudi Arabia to pay respects following the death of King
Abdullah, giving him a chance to move past recent friction in a
crucial strategic alliance.

Obama will discuss with the new King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud cooperation in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq
and Syria, the unrest in neighboring Yemen and U.S.-led
negotiations with Iran, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security
adviser, told reporters on Monday. Human rights, a regular point
of contention, also will be on the agenda.

“President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is far more than
a symbolic gesture of continuing U.S. support for the kingdom at
a time of transition in its top leadership,” David Ottaway, a
senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for
Scholars, said in an e-mail. “It signals his acknowledgment of
its crucial role in showing Arab support for the U.S.-led
military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

The visit is an opportunity for Obama to size up the new
king as the leader of a nation that long has been a linchpin of
U.S. policy in the Middle East. Salman, 79, is less known to the
U.S. than Abdullah, who had been an ally of U.S. presidents of
both political parties. The Saudis have been skeptical of slow
U.S. progress on stability in Syria and an Israeli-Palestinian
peace accord.

“This is both marking King Abdullah’s life and his
partnership with the United States but it’s also a period of
succession in Saudi Arabia,” Rhodes said. “We have many
ongoing projects and initiatives with Saudi Arabia that are

The two nations have differed on dealing with the civil war
in Syria and on how best to engage with Iran, a rival to Saudi
influence in the region. Saudi Arabia is important for U.S.
efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program and counter growing
turmoil in Yemen, where the government collapsed amid a
rebellion by Shiite Houthi forces. The U.S. closed its consulate
there to the public on Monday.

While Saudi Arabia has chafed at the U.S. patience for an
Iran nuclear agreement, the two countries were aligned in
supporting the now-deposed Yemeni government that was ousted by
the Houthis. Gulf Arab monarchies accuse Iran of backing the
Shiite group.

Obama and Salman will probably discuss the Iranian nuclear
talks, Ottaway said.

“The Saudis fear an agreement would lead to a U.S.-Iranian
rapprochement at their expenses,” he said. “Obama will
doubtlessly seek to reassure Salman of continued American
support for the security of the kingdom regardless of the

Obama hasn’t talked about Saudi Arabia in the context of
oil prices. Rhodes didn’t list oil as part of the agenda for
today’s talk.

“Salman is unlikely to signal any immediate change in
Saudi policy, which has been long in the making inside the
ruling al-Saud family in its bid to re-establish command over
production and price levels,” Ottaway said.

Republican Heavyweights

Obama cut short a visit to India, irking the Indian people
by canceling a visit Tuesday to the Taj Mahal in Agra to stop in
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, on his way home
to Washington. While Obama doesn’t usually make condolence
calls, it’s important to greet Abdullah’s family because he was
a sitting head of state when he died, Rhodes said.

Obama is leading a bipartisan 30-person delegation that
includes Republican foreign policy heavyweights, including James Baker, secretary of state at the time of the first Persian Gulf
war in 1991; Condoleeza Rice, who held the same job during the
2003 Iraq war; and Brent Scowcroft, who served two Republican
presidents as national security adviser.

In Riyadh, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are
scheduled to have dinner at Erga Palace after the president and
Salman meet.

Uncertain Transition

Secretary of State John Kerry, who will join the delegation
to Riyadh, has traveled to Saudi Arabia several times in recent
months, trying to build support for the coalition against
Islamic State that includes European and Middle Eastern allies.

While Salman has signaled he won’t change Abdullah’s
policies, his ascension to power introduces uncertainty, said
Jon Alterman, the Middle East Program director at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research
group, said in an e-mail.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship “is central to both countries
but there have been tensions,” he said. “I don’t think this
transition will either resolve the tensions or result in a
fundamental rupture.”

Before flying to Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited
by law from driving, Obama delivered a speech in New Delhi in
which he called for equality and opportunity for women in that
country as well as religious freedom.

“We know from experience that nations are more successful
when their women are successful,” Obama said to an audience
primarily of Indian young people.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Angela Greiling Keane in New Delhi at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Daniel Ten Kate at
Craig Gordon at
Amy Teibel


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