Leading a delegation of high ranking government officials from past Republican and Democratic administrations, President Barack Obama landed in Saudi Arabia Tuesday to meet with King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud and express condolences on the passing of King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz.
Obama, who cut his trip to India short to visit the kingdom, was accompanied by a U.S. delegation that includes former Secretaries of State from two Bush administrations: James Baker and Condoleezza Rice; along with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Secretary of State of State John Kerry and three former national security advisors: Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Stephen Hadley.
Most of the delegation flew from the U.S. to Ramstein in Germany, where they met up with Kerry to travel to Riyadh, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. He said once the U.S. learned of King Abdullah’s death it worked to put together a delegation "that represented people who had been invested in the Saudi relationship for a long time, and who had known King Abdullah well."
Officials wanted the high-level delegation to be bipartisan – it includes members of both Bush administrations - and members of Congress because of the body’s interest in U.S.-Saudi policy, Rhodes said.
He called the brief visit an "opportunity to both pay respects to the legacy of King Abdullah ... and touch base on some of the issues where we’re working together with the Saudis," including the Islamic State, Yemen and ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations.
The trip comes as Saudi Arabia has drawn outrage for sentencing a blogger to 1,000 lashes, but Obama suggested in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he was unlikely to bring up the episode during his meetings with the new king.
“A lot of this is just paying respects to King Abdullah, who, in his own fashion, represented some modest reform efforts within the kingdom,” Obama said in the interview, conducted before Obama left India for Saudi Arabia.
But Obama said the U.S. has continued to press Saudi Arabia on human rights issues.
“What I've found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” Obama said. “And oftentimes that makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
Rhodes said Obama had previously met King Salman, who had held a number of positions in the Saudi system, and the White House believes he will “emphasize continuity in terms of Saudi interests and the Saudi relationship with the United States.”
But, Rhodes said, “given the importance of some of the things we’re doing with Saudi Arabia, including the counter-ISIL campaign, it’ll be important to the president to establish that relationship with King Salman.”
He said that Obama had a “close relationship’ with King Abdullah and that they could both pick up the phone to talk.
“They did not always agree, but they could be candid in their differences, they were also able to do a lot of things together,” Rhodes said. “I think he’ll want to develop the same kind of relationship with King Salman where we’re able to move forward on areas of common interest and able to be very candid and frank with one another about developments in the region."
Obama defended the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, telling CNN that despite concerns about the country’s human rights record and its treatment of women, it is a key ally in a “very complicated” region.
Obama called it important for U.S. critics to “recognize that we have strategic interests in common with Saudi Arabia and that even as we work on those common interests, for example, countering terrorist organizations, that we are also encouraging them to move in new directions, not just for our sake but more importantly for their sake. ”
He said he’d tell countries like Saudi Arabia that “if they want a society that is going to be able to sustain itself in this age, then they're going to have to change how they do business. ”