January 28, 2015

Top Officials Join Obama in Brief Visit to Saudi King

The New York Times


Published January 27, 2015


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, leading a bipartisan delegation of prominent current and former officials to shore up an important relationship and offer condolences for the death of King Abdullah.

American officials said the meetings were the first official discussions the new monarch has held with a visiting foreign dignitary.

Air Force One landed on a clear, mild afternoon with a brisk wind snapping the American and Saudi flags to attention. At the Erga Palace, the king and the president sat in gold chairs as their meeting got under way.
Mr. Obama was in Riyadh for only a few hours, detouring from the return leg of a three-day visit to India. Still, the fact that he made the stop was significant, because he rarely travels overseas to mark the death of a foreign leader; more often, he dispatches the vice president, secretary of state or other dignitaries to represent the United States.

American relations with Saudi Arabia were strained by Mr. Obama’s decision not to mount military strikes in Syria against the government of President Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia has been a bitter foe of Mr. Assad, who has repressed the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria and who has the backing of Iran, the Saudis’ regional rival.

The Saudis are also uneasy about the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, fearing that it will do too little to restrain the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons. And they were unhappy with American policy toward the Arab Spring uprisings, especially in Egypt, where they accused the United States of turning its back on a friend, President Hosni Mubarak.

Still, the Obama administration has worked assiduously to try to repair relations with the Saudis. After a pivotal June meeting in Jidda between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia agreed to join the United States in carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Joining the president for the visit on Tuesday were his Republican opponent from 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and several veterans of Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice.

Ms. Rice was also one of four former national security advisers in the delegation, which also included Brent Scowcroft, Stephen J. Hadley and Samuel Berger.

Senior figures from the Obama administration who joined the delegation included Mr. Kerry; Susan E. Rice, the current national security adviser and former ambassador to the United Nations; John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A.; and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees Middle East operations. Democratic members of Congress also took part, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York.

The size of the American delegation caught the attention of many in the region. “It is very obvious that Obama wants to make a point, that ‘We do care for Saudi Arabia, and I have assembled your friends and my foes and brought them with me,’ ” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and commentator. “It is good, but will it be more than just paying condolences?”

Mr. Khashoggi said that with so many pressing issues in the region, including civil strife in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, restoring stability would require the two governments to do more than just communicate better.
“Saudi Arabia and the U.S. together need a restart for a new policy in the Middle East, because whatever we had in the past has failed,” he said.

Others in the kingdom took to Twitter to air their views on Mr. Obama’s visit, posting under the hashtag #obama_visits_saudi. In addition to commenting on the number of American dignitaries who accompanied the president, some joked about the nature of the relationship between the two countries.

Someone posting under the name Sultan bin Eissa al-Atwi poked fun at Saudi Arabia for relying too much on the United States.

“Anyway, Obama’s visit is not wrong and there’s no problem,” he wrote. “A manager of a company visits one of its branches to check the workflow. Is that wrong?”

Others suggested that the strong American concern in the kingdom was more about self-interest.

“Our oil determines the direction of the American voter, whether he’s democratic or republican,” wrote Musawi al-Qaisi.

Several of the former officials in the delegation said strengthening ties with the Saudis had become more important as the region grew increasingly instable.

“This is an extraordinarily critical and sensitive time in the Middle East, when everything seems to be falling apart,” Mr. Baker said. “Do we have some problems with them? You bet we do. But we will be in a hell of a lot better shape to handle those problem if the relationship is as strong again as it was when I was in office.”

Ms. Rice noted that, “It is a difficult time for the region” and said, “I am here to support the relationship with the Saudis.” She greeted the new king warmly with a broad smile and a lingering handshake.

Mr. McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen had highlighted the importance of improving ties. “Saudi Arabia is emerging as the major bulwark against Iranian expansion,” he said.

Mr. Kerry greeted the new king with a kiss on each cheek.

The goal of the president’s visit, in addition to paying respects to the family of Abdullah, who died on Friday, was to take the measure of Salman and, quietly at least, to assess his health. The new king is 79, and has suffered at least one stroke, with the loss of some movement in one of his arms.

Mr. Obama said before flying to Riyadh from India that the United States has an interest in a strong partnership with Saudi Arabia, despite its record of repression, human rights abuses and links to terrorism.

“It is important for us to take into account existing relationships, the existing alignments within a very complicated Middle East, to recognize that we have strategic interests in common with Saudi Arabia, and that even as we work on those common interests — for example, countering terrorist organizations — that we are also encouraging them to move in new directions, not just for our sake but more importantly for their sake,” he said in an interview in New Delhi with Fareed Zakaria of CNN.

Mr. Obama was asked whether he would raise the case of the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes. He said he would not on this occasion, but that he does regularly raise human rights issues with the Saudi government, just as he does with other countries with undemocratic governments.

“What I’ve found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” Mr. Obama said. “And oftentimes, that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”