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US President's Saudi Arabia Visit to Stem Deteriorating Ties
Apr 02, 2014

President Barack Obama opened a fence-mending visit to Saudi Arabia recently, arriving in the oil-rich Gulf nation for meetings to reassure its elderly monarch of the U.S. commitment to the Arab world.

Despite its decades-long alliance with the United States, Saudi's royal family has become increasingly anxious in recent years over Obama's outreach to Iran and his tepid involvement in the Syrian civil war. During his meeting with the king, Obama reassured Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is not abandoning Arab interests despite troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater energy independence back home and nuclear talks with predominantly Persian Iran.

Obama arrived in Riyadh after four days in Europe, where he hold talks with the continent's leaders about the crisis in Ukraine and had an audience with Pope Francis. Obama’s focus in Saudi Arabia shifted quickly to the array of Middle East matters that have complicated U.S. ties in the already combustible region.

White House officials and Mideast experts said the Saudi royal family's main concern is Iran. They fear Iran's nuclear programe, object to Iran's backing of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and see the government of Tehran as having designs on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

On Syria, Obama did not make any specific announcements about additional assistance to opposition forces. U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been working together closely to coordinate their assistance to the rebels. That coordination has helped put the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when they had some tactical differences about their Syria policy. Obama angered Saudi officials by scrapping plans to launch a military strike against Syria, choosing instead to back a plan to strip Syrian President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapons.

Obama reassured Saudi Arabia that those negotiations do not mean U.S. concerns about other Iranian activities have lessened, including its support for Assad and Hezbollah, as well as its destabilizing activity in Yemen and the Gulf.

Ever since the US withdrew support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, King Abdullah and other Gulf leaders have worried about the reliability of the US posture toward even longstanding allies. President Obama's U-turn on military action against Syria over its use of chemical weapons last summer only added to the concern, which has likely morphed into exasperation after recent events in Crimea, where the Saudis judge that President Obama was outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin.

The technological advances that have increased oil and gas production in the United States have also made Gulf countries nervous. A lot of people in the region asking themselves what America's energy independence means for America's willingness to invest in the security of energy and supply from the Gulf.


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