Obama, Saudi King put warm gloss over differences

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SHAFAQNA - US President Barack Obama on Friday welcomed Saudi Arabia’s King Salman for a long-delayed first White House summit marked by warm public words, amid clashing views on Middle Eastern crises.

Obama made the rare move of greeting the 79-year-old monarch at the doors of the White House, as he hailed the “longstanding friendship” between the two countries.

Salman’s inaugural visit as king — originally scheduled for May and canceled by Riyadh — had been billed as a way of putting relations back on a more stable footing.

In the Oval Office, Obama was effusive, saying he wanted to “once again reaffirm not only our personal friendship, but the deep and abiding friendship between our two people.”

For his part Salman said his visit was a “symbol of the deep and strong relationship that we have with the United States.”

These meetings normally end in “some kind of public statement that puts as positive a spin as possible on the meeting,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Both nations are close strategic partners in spite of their differences, and both states need each other.”

Deep disagreements

But behind the warm public statements, there are deep disagreements on Syria and Yemen as well as lingering Saudi doubts about the nuclear deal with Iran.

The White House said that during the meeting Salman “expressed his support” for the Iran deal.

Saudi officials have privately expressed grave misgivings that the nuclear agreement may legitimize their arch-foe Iran.

To assuage those concerns and bolster Riyadh’s military edge, the pair also discussed “fast-tracking the provision of certain military equipment” to the kingdom.

Obama acknowledged only that the two sides had much to discuss.

“This is obviously a challenging time in world affairs, particularly in the Middle East,” Obama said, adding that the pair would discuss a “wide range of issues.”

Obama said the two sides “share concerns” about the need to restore a functioning government in Yemen and relieve an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in Yemen to oust Iranian-backed rebels soon after Salman and his son and defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, came to power.

The United States has supported that effort, but has repeatedly warned about the impact the fighting has had on civilians.

The UN has estimated that around six million people in Yemen face possible starvation and 850,000 children face acute malnutrition.

During the meeting the White House said King Salman had committed to “work toward opening Red Sea ports” that would bring vital supplies, so long as the operation is monitored by the United Nations.

Riyadh fears the ports could be used by Iran or others to bring weapons to the rebel Huthi Shiite militias.

Obama also said that the pair “share concerns about the crisis in Syria and will have the opportunity to discuss how we can arrive at a political transition process within Syria that can… end the horrific conflict there.”

But Saudi Arabia’s backing for opposition groups like Jaysh al-Islam, an amalgam of factions that include hardline Islamists, has concerned the White House.

Riyadh views Sunni fighters as a counterbalance to the Iranian-backed Shia militias helping prop up Bashar al-Assad.

“The kingdom sees the conflict against the Iranian-supported Assad regime as an extension of the wider Persian-Arab rivalry” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ahead of the meeting senior Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes said the White House wants to make sure both countries “have a common view” on which Syrian opposition groups get support.

“We are looking to isolate more extremist elements of the opposition, that’s been an ongoing conversation with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Friday’s meeting also afforded US officials a closer look at Salman’s son and heir apparent Muhammad.

Although relatively new to the world stage — even the 30-something’s age is not known for sure — he is believed to be one of the architects of Riyadh’s newfound military assertiveness and the operation in Yemen.

The White House said the prince “briefed the president on the kingdom’s views regarding the strategic partnership.”

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