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Middle east

US-Saudi interests remain 'aligned', Obama tells King Abdullah

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-28

US President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah discussed the "tactical differences" in their approach to regional issues but agreed to remain strategically "aligned", a senior US official said after talks Friday at a royal estate outside Riyadh.

Obama arrived for talks with King Abdullah on a diplomatic visit aimed at smoothing relations increasingly strained by entrenched policy differences, notably over the unrest in Syria and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The US official said the two leaders had spoken frankly about their "tactical differences" in their countries' approaches to some regional issues.

Obama told the king that "he believes that our strategic interests remain very much aligned" with those of Saudi Arabia, the official told reporters.

Saudi Arabia has had strong reservations about efforts spearheaded by Washington and other world powers to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme.

It was also disappointed by Obama's decision last year not to take military action against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons attacks, despite previous warnings that the use of such weapons would constitute a "red line" that would not be tolerated.

A White House official said ahead of the Riyadh meeting that a key talking point would be how to aid Syria's opposition, a shift in focus that he said has helped improve US-Saudi ties.

The two leaders will look at ways to "empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily, as a counterweight to [President Bashar al-] Assad," Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters aboard Air Force One.

"Our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall (autumn), when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy," he said.

Stumbling block: Iran

Saudi analyst Abdel Aziz al-Sagr, who heads the Gulf Research Centre, emphasised that Saudi-US relations have become "tense due to Washington's stances" on issues in the Middle East, but especially on Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the largest power in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), fears that a possible US withdrawal from the Middle East and a diplomatic overture towards Iran would further fuel Tehran's regional ambitions.

A recent rapprochement between Tehran and Washington "must not take place at the expense of relations with Riyadh", Sagr told AFP ahead of the talks.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran's regional ambitions, views a deal struck last November between world powers and Iran over the latter's nuclear programme as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran's moves in the future.

The interim agreement curbs Iran's controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord in the future.

Political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil of King Saud University spoke of the "major differences" Riyadh now has with Washington, adding that one of Obama's aims was to ease "Saudi fears on Iran and on regional security".

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has crystallised with the Syrian conflict: Tehran backs President Assad's regime, while several GCC states support the opposition rebellion against him.

The trip is Obama's second to Saudi Arabia since being elected in 2009.

'A reassurance visit'

Obama's stance on the events reshaping the region "have strained (Saudi-US) relations but without causing a complete break", said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.

US security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama's meeting with King Abdullah was aimed in part at assuaging Saudi concerns.

"However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit," he added.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has said ahead of the talks that "whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership".

Obama's visit comes months after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Riyadh last November in a bid to mend strained relations.

Riyadh has recently reached out to Asia, including China, in an apparent bid to shift its international relations focus.

Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz visited China, Pakistan, Japan and India this month, reportedly to strengthen ties.

The US-Saudi relationship dates to the end of World War II and was founded on an agreement for Washington to defend the Gulf state in exchange for oil contracts.

OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia is the world's top producer and exporter of oil.

Egypt has been another bone of contention since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, who was a staunch ally of both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom was dismayed by the partial freezing of US aid to Egypt after the army toppled Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last July, a move that was hailed by Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia responded by sending $5 billion in aid to Egypt following Morsi's ouster.

'Systematic human rights violations'

Dozens of US lawmakers urged Obama ahead of the talks to address Saudi Arabia's "systematic human rights violations", including efforts by women activists to challenge its ban on female drivers.

Rights group Amnesty International said Obama "must break the US administration's silence on Saudi Arabia's human rights record by taking a strong public stand against the systematic violations in the kingdom".

"It is crucial that President Obama sends a strong message to the government of Saudi Arabia that its gross human rights violations and systematic discrimination are unacceptable," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"A failure to do so would undermine the human rights principles the USA purports to stand for," she said in a statement.

"Today, given the extent of time they spent on Iran and Syria, they didn't get to a number of issues, and it wasn't just human rights," the official said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-03-28

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