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Saudi-US ties strained by Iran deal, 9/11 probe as Obama visits Riyadh

Jim Watson, AFP | US President Barack Obama speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia at Erga Palace in Riyadh on April 20.

Barack Obama met Gulf leaders on Thursday as part of a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia overshadowed by recent US overtures toward Iran and a push to declassify 28 pages that allegedly implicate Riyadh in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

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Obama and officials from the US-allied countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council opened the talks Thursday morning by posing in front of the world press for a group photo at the Diriyah Palace, but declined to make any statements.

Discussions with the GCC members – which along with Saudi Arabia include the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – are set to include regional security issues in the Persian Gulf and the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group

The summit follows bilateral talks that Obama held with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday shortly after arriving in the kingdom on his flying two-day visit in which the two discussed the need to support a political transition away from President Bashar al-Assad in Syria as well as the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq, the White House said. Obama also raised human rights concerns.

Foreign policy challenges

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and CIA Director John Brennan are among the officials accompanying the president. Carter, meeting with ministers from Gulf nations, pressed them to provide more economic and political support to Iraq.

But the visit risks being overshadowed by rising tensions in US-Saudi relations, with the Sunni Wahhabi kingdom – ruled by an increasingly belligerent Salman – opposed to Washington’s overtures to its archrival, Tehran, which culminated in the high-profile Iran nuclear accord last year. A decreasing US reliance on Saudi oil has further complicated a relationship that was once considered too important to test. Realpolitik concerns are no longer sufficient to silence the increasing calls for accountability from the families of 9/11 victims and the US public at large.

Shortly before Obama boarded his plane for the Saudi Kingdom late on Tuesday, the majority leader of the US Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell, said he was considering a bill that would allow US citizens to sue the Saudi government over its alleged links to the September 11 attacks.

"I'm still looking at it," McConnell told reporters.

'The 28 pages'

Secured behind a locked door in a secret vault on Capitol Hill in the heart of Washington, DC, sits a 28-page document that only a small group of people are permitted to see - such is the veil of secrecy behind the final chapter of the 9/11 investigation report by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The 28 pages documenting Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers were redacted in 2003, when the 838-page report was released, due to national security concerns.

And more than a decade later, that piece of the investigation into the worst terrorist attack on US soil is still – very controversially – under wraps.

The clamour to unseal the 28 pages grew louder ahead of Obama’s Saudi trip, rejuvenated by an April 10 report on the respected US television magazine show "60 Minutes" that detailed the frustration among senior US officials who have been pushing for the declassification over the past 13 years.

These former and current officials include former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who is chairman of the Senate Select Committee and co-chairman of the inquiry, and former CIA director Porter Goss, who was also a co-chairman of the inquiry.

Two days after the "60 Minutes" broadcast, Graham told Fox News that the White House had informed him that a decision on whether to declassify the documents would be made within two months.

No evidence Saudi backed al Qaeda

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters last week that the 28 pages were the subject of an intelligence community “classification review”. Asked about any alleged ties the Saudi government might have to 9/11, Earnest cited the 9/11 Commission's findings that there was no evidence the Saudi government nor senior Saudi officials had funded al Qaeda.

Riyadh has always maintained that support for the mainly Saudi hijackers did not come from the government.

Rumours have long circulated that the secret 28 pages detail funding for the 9/11 al Qaeda hijackers – not necessarily from the Saudi government, but from wealthy Saudis, perhaps including members of the royal family.

In the "60 Minutes" report, Graham was asked if he believed support for the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.

“Substantially,” Graham replied.

CBS reporter Steve Kroft pushed the former senator further: “And when we say, ‘The Saudis,’ you mean the government… rich people in the country? Charities?”

“All of the above,” said Graham.

A shifting alliance

US government officials insist that the redacted pages do not contain anything the public does not already know.

But advocates for the declassification argue that, if that were true, the Obama administration would have no reason to keep the pages from going public.

They also note that the redaction probably made sense under former president George W. Bush, given the close personal relationship between the Bush family and the Saudi royals.

But the traditional Washington-Riyadh alliance has shifted dramatically in recent years. And although Obama has made three previous visits to Saudi Arabia during his presidency, it is common knowledge that the US-Saudi relationship is changing.

The Saudis – currently involved in a military campaign in neighbouring Yemen and a proxy conflict with Iran that infuriates Washington – have appeared increasingly truculent. Eyebrows were raised last year when King Salman decided not to join a summit of Gulf leaders hosted by Obama at his Camp David country residence.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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