In a show of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, President Barack Obama led a parade of American dignitaries to the ultraconservative desert kingdom Tuesday to pay respects after King Abdullah’s death and take measure of the new monarch. Obama’s presence here underscored the key role Saudi Arabia plays in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and highlighted Washington’s willingness to put national security priorities ahead of concerns about human rights issues.
Hours before arriving in Riyadh, Obama spoke at length about the importance of women’s rights during an address in India, setting up a jarring contrast with his warm embrace of Saudi Arabia, a country where there are strict limits on women’s freedom. Obama, like his recent predecessors, defended his willingness to forge close ties with the kingdom despite its array of human rights issues.
“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” Obama said in an interview with CNN.
First lady Michelle Obama accompanied the president during his four-hour visit to Riyadh. She dressed conservatively in black pants and a long jacket, but did not cover her head, which is often standard for Western women visiting the kingdom but forbidden for Saudi women. Some members of the all-male Saudi delegation shook her hand as they greeted the Obamas, while others simply nodded to her as they passed by.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama told an audience of young people in New Delhi that every woman should “be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity that she deserves.”
A senior administration official said Obama raised the issue of human rights broadly in his discussions with the king, but did not tackle specific matters, including the case of a Saudi blogger who was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
The president cut short his trip to India to visit Saudi Arabia after 90-year-old Abdullah’s death Friday. The schedule shift highlighted the degree to which the Middle East still has sway over Obama, even as he seeks to refocus U.S. foreign policy on places like India and the Asia-Pacific.
Obama was joined in Riyadh by Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Condoleezza Rice and James Baker, who led the State Department under Republican presidents.
Former White House national security advisers Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Stephen Hadley also made the trip, as did Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East.
CIA Director John Brennan and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, which overseas military activity in the Middle East, joined the delegation.
Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, greeted Obama at the steps of Air Force One after it landed in Riyadh. The two men had met previously, but Tuesday’s meetings marked their most substantive discussions.
Following a lavish dinner of grilled meats and Arabic desserts at the king’s opulent personal palace, Obama and Salman spent just over an hour discussing a range of regional issues. Among them: the campaign against the Islamic State group, the Syrian civil war and the political chaos in Yemen.
The Obama administration official said they also discussed Iran, both in the context of the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations and what Washington and Riyadh see as the Islamic republic’s destabilizing activities in the region.
Salman spoke fluently about each issue without notes, but did not stray from the positions the kingdom held during his half-brother Abdullah’s reign, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the private meeting by name.
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been arguably Washington’s most important Arab partner. The kingdom is among a handful of nations that has joined the U.S. in launching airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria. And the two countries have coordinated closely on counterterrorism operations, even after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which were executed by a group of men that included many with Saudi ties.
However, Obama’s tenure has been marked by tensions with the royal family. Abdullah was frustrated with Obama’s cautious approach to the Syrian civil war and frequently pressed for the U.S. to send more high-powered weaponry to the opposition. The Saudis are also suspicious of the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran, one of the kingdom’s chief rivals. SAPA