President Obama met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Friday in a bid to improve relations that have been seriously strained over the civil war in Syria, negotiations with Iran, and Saudi fears that the United States is pulling back from the region.
Obama met with the king at his desert camp northeast of Riyadh. Secretary of State John Kerry and Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, accompanied him to the meeting.
The Obama administration’s relations with the Saudis have been seriously strained in recent months by differences over Syria.
Saudi Arabia and other gulf states have favoured a greater effort to arm and train Syrian rebels who have taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad. In February, the top American intelligence official told Congress that Assad’s hold on power had been strengthened after he agreed to get rid of his chemical weapons arsenal and the White House shelved plans for a military strike.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Obama’s flight to Riyadh that efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition, politically and militarily, would be one of the principal topics of discussion on Friday.
“There’s not a specific announcement forthcoming around additional assistance,” said Rhodes, who asserted that progress between Washington and Riyadh had already been made in coordinating “who we’re providing assistance to and what types of assistance we’re providing.”
Rhodes, however, said the United States was still worried about proposals to give the Syrian rebels shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles known as manpads.
“We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” he said. “We continue to have those concerns.”
The Saudis are also anxious about American policy toward Iran, their main regional rival. The United States and five other world powers have signed an interim agreement to temporarily freeze much of Iran’s nuclear program and are trying to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement.
Rhodes said that the United States still had concerns over “Iranian behaviour in the region,” including “its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the gulf.”