Obama tackles Islamic State, Iran in talks with new Saudi king

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Meeting between US president and King Salman focused on fight against IS, Iran's nuclear programme and human rights, officials say

King Salman took over as leader of Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah's death on 23 January (AFP)
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Friday 13 February 2015 10:15 UTC
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US President Barack Obama led a delegation to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet new King Salman and discuss the two countries' ongoing fight against the Islamic State group, human rights in the Gulf kingdom, and Iran's nuclear programme, a senior US official said.

Riyadh has been part of the US-led international coalition carrying out airstrikes against IS, and is a long-time regional ally of Washington.

Members of the 29-member bipartisan US delegation said they wanted to show support for the US-Saudi relationship.

"I believe it is important that we demonstrate to the Saudis the importance that they represent to us," said James Baker, secretary of state during the first Gulf War.

"This is an extraordinarily critical and sensitive time in the Middle East when everything seems to be falling apart. And the kingdom in some way is becoming an island of stability."

Saudi leaders greet US delegation

But analysts said Riyadh has grown dissatisfied with what it sees as a lack of US engagement in crises elsewhere, including Yemen and Libya, as the US looks to Asia.

There has also been unease in the kingdom about Obama's pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, the regional rival of Saudi Arabia.

The Americans arrived for a four-hour stop from India, where Obama cut short a state visit following the death of Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, on 23 January.

Saudi television showed Salman, 79, welcoming Obama and his wife Michelle at the bottom of a red-carpeted ramp before a military band played the US and Saudi national anthems.

Obama is the latest leader to visit Riyadh since Friday, as presidents and prime ministers from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas all came to pay their respects.

Crown Prince Moqren and Mohammed bin Nayef, the powerful interior minister who is second in line to the throne, were among those greeting the US delegation. Bin Nayef is expected to play a key role in the new Saudi leadership.

“Salman is not really able to do the day-to-day job of being king – not just because of his Alzheimer’s but also due to his age – he’s 79,” Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi opposition figure and director of the Washington-based Gulf Institute, told Middle East Eye.

“[Crown Prince] Muqrin has very little power. Now the most effective leader is Mohammed bin Nayef.”

Balancing human rights with regional concerns

Obama last visited Saudi Arabia in March, when he held talks with Abdullah.

A senior US official said Obama and Salman discussed "the campaign against the Islamic State... the need to continue providing support to the opposition in Syria [and] the need to promote unity in Iraq."

IS released a video celebrating the death of the "tyrant Abdullah" and said that, God permitting, they would invade the Arabian Peninsula soon, SITE Intelligence Group said.

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under George W Bush, joined the US contingent, which also included current CIA director John Brennan and General Lloyd Austin, head of the US Central Command.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain joined the president especially for his Saudi trip.

McCain, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the kingdom was emerging "as the major bulwark" against efforts by Iran to expand its influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.

A senior US official, who spoke anonymously to AFP news agency, said that while Salman had not raised the topic of nuclear talks, he "did say Iran should not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon".

Several other topics, including Riyadh's human rights record - heavily criticised by activists - and Iranian nuclear talks, were also broached during Tuesday's visit.

The US official said Obama discussed human rights "in broad terms", but did not raise the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam and whose case has attracted international concern.

In an interview with CNN before arriving in Riyadh, Obama said: "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."