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Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia Meet, but Deep Rifts Remain

President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia spent more than two hours in a closed-door meeting that American officials said was cordial but underscored deep differences with the kingdom over Iran, human rights and the best way to fight terror.

The two leaders met in Riyadh on Wednesday against the backdrop of a public debate in the United States Congress about a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held legally responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks if it is established that any officials played a role — a charge Saudi officials have long denied.

Administration officials said the issue of the Sept. 11 attacks did not come up during the meeting with the king at Erga Palace, an opulent compound lined with palm trees and well-manicured royal grounds.

American officials said Mr. Obama pressed King Salman to be more open to engaging in diplomacy with Iran and to find alternatives to direct confrontation with Iranian leaders and other rivals in the region. They described the king as highly skeptical of efforts to work with Iran, the Saudis' chief rival in the region and the backer of rebels in Yemen that the Saudis are fighting.

Mr. Obama also reiterated his view that Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations needed to rely less on the United States for their security, officials said. Similar comments by Mr. Obama in a recent article in the magazine The Atlantic had increased the friction between the two governments, but American officials who attended the meeting with the king said the president did not apologize for them.

In a statement released after the meeting, the White House stressed the areas of agreement between Mr. Obama and the king, saying that they "reaffirmed the historic friendship and deep strategic partnership" between their two nations. But the statement also noted that the two leaders merely "exchanged views" on several topics, suggesting a lack of agreement in those areas.

The meeting exposed what one senior administration official at the meeting said were tactical differences even as the two nations broadly have similar goals on fighting terror and maintaining stability in the Middle East. The official said the Saudis preferred to confront terror threats only with force while the United States was seeking an approach that also included diplomatic efforts in the region. The sharpest exchange, the official said, came when Mr. Obama criticized the kingdom's human rights record, raising the issues of harsh sentences and beheadings. The king repeatedly defended the Saudi justice system.

Mr. Obama also met separately with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, before Thursday's summit meeting of several Persian Gulf nations. A statement from White House officials said the two men discussed the war in Yemen, the Islamic State, Iran's "destabilizing activities in the region" and the volatile political situation in Libya. The United Arab Emirates has taken an aggressive military role in the Middle East, sending troops and fighter aircraft for the war in Yemen and joining the coalition striking the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Saudis on social media were quick to note that while state television had closely covered the arrival of Persian Gulf heads of state, who were welcomed on the tarmac with embraces and kisses by King Salman, Mr. Obama had been received by a much smaller delegation, headed by the governor of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. His arrival was not shown on state television. American officials said they did not perceive the reception at the airport as a snub of Mr. Obama, noting that the Saudis had offered to host a grand lunch buffet for the president — complete with much more royal pomp and circumstance — but Mr. Obama's schedule required him to arrive too late for that.

Mr. Obama arrived in the kingdom barely a day after publicly expressing support for releasing the Sept. 11 documents. Those documents — 28 pages of intelligence from a congressional report — have fueled suspicions for years that some Saudi officials played a role in the attack.

Just before leaving for his six-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, Mr. Obama told CBS News that he hoped that the confidential section of the congressional report would be released soon, though he cautioned that the information it contained might not be conclusive.

Before Mr. Obama's trip, White House officials repeatedly acknowledged tensions between the two governments. The Obama administration's deal with Iran to limit that country's nuclear program has unnerved the kingdom. The president's decision not to order airstrikes against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in 2013 was viewed in the kingdom as hesitation in the face of an implacable foe.

Aides had said they hoped that the common cause of combating terrorism and regional instability would be enough to ensure a productive meeting with the king.

For their part, Saudi officials used the meeting to gauge the extent of change in their decades-old alliance with the United States, while also knowing that Mr. Obama's days in the White House are counting down.

"The Saudis enjoyed a good strategic relationship that kept the region stable and allowed them to benefit from their wealth, so when this changed, there was a psychological response," said Awadh al-Badi, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. "This is the defining moment: Is it the country, or is it Obama? If it is the country, then things here need to change."

After the Gulf summit meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama will head to London, where he will also try to mend fences after he suggested in The Atlantic article that Europeans were "free riders" in securing the Continent. And he specifically criticized the British prime minister, David Cameron, as being "distracted" during the 2011 military campaign that led to the ouster and killing of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya.

The president is also likely to weigh in on the fate of the European Union as British voters prepare to decide in a referendum whether the country will leave the bloc. Mr. Obama has said he opposes a British exit.

Mr. Obama will conclude his trip with a visit to Germany, where he plans to tour the country's largest industrial trade show and deliver a speech about the broad challenges still facing Europe.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, said the speech presented an opportunity for Mr. Obama to "step back" and talk about the future of Europe even as it faces terrorism, a refugee crisis, a continued tug-of-war with Russia over Ukraine and economic slowdowns.

[Source: By Michael D. Shear and Ben Hubbard, The New York Times, Riyadh, 20Apr16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 22Apr16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.