President Barack Obama met for two hours in the desert late Friday with Saudi Arabia’s 89-year-old monarch, King Abdullah, seeking to reassure a nervous longtime ally that the U.S. is in its corner as he closed out a weeklong overseas trip focused on a series of global crises.
The meeting at the king’s retreat outside the capital came as senior officials in the country have complained about what they view as an American retrenchment in the region after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with Obama’s reluctance to engage more robustly in Syria and his engagement with rival Iran.
White House officials downplayed talk of a rift as “perception” and said the two leaders had an “excellent’’ talk, spending so much time on Syria and Iran that they had no time for other matters.
“They talked about tactical differences but President Obama made very clear our strategic interests remain very much aligned,” a senior administration official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
Citing an anonymous White House source, the Associated Press reported that Obama is considering allowing shipments of new air defense systems to better arm the Syrian opposition forces, as Saudi Arabia has championed.
The administration has opposed sending the shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, known as manpads, fearing such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists and be used against commercial airliners. A White House official told reporters aboard Air Force One that there’s been no change in the U.S. position.
“We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “We continue to have those concerns.”
Rhodes said the U.S. has been “willing to look at ways of increasing the ability for the United States and other countries to provide support to the opposition,” but he said much of that involves better coordination of assistance.
“What you’d find is that we are in a better place today certainly than we were several months ago because we’ve improved our coordination with the Saudis and other countries,” he said of aid to the rebels.
Obama did not bring up Saudi Arabia’s human rights record with Abdullah, despite pleas from a number of lawmakers and Human Rights Watch, which says a new Saudi terrorism law and a series of related royal decrees “appear to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or expression as terrorism.”
White House officials said the administration routinely raises human rights complaints with Saudi officials and that Obama on Saturday will present a State Department International Women of Courage award to Maha Abdulla Al Muneef, who founded the National Family Safety Program in 2005 – the first organization in the country to address domestic violence and child abuse.
Obama met with Abdullah, who was breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank, for two hours at Rawdat Khuraim, the king’s private desert encampment about 90 northeast of the capital.
Despite the breathing assistance, White House officials said the king was fully engaged in a “vigorous” discussion and appeared to be in good spirits.
Obama’s Marine One helicopter kicked up a blast of sand as he arrived. The president walked through a row of military guards to a lavish meeting room with gilded chairs, upholstered walls and jeweled chandeliers.
Obama and King Abdullah sat at the far end in armchairs next to each other, their translators behind them. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Westphal and National Security Adviser Susan Rice sat on couches to Obama’s right. An elaborate spread of sweets, including chocolates known as patchi, were on coffee tables in front of them.
Administration officials said Obama sought to reassure Abdullah – who doesn’t trust Iran and is alarmed over the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement – that the U.S. is determined to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but he has no illusions about Tehran.
“Even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region _ its support for Assad, its support for Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf _ that those concerns remain constant,” Rhodes said. “We’re not in any way negotiating those issues in the nuclear talks.”
Obama will head back to Washington on Saturday after a weeklong trip that included meetings with European allies over the crisis in Ukraine.
But the highlight of the trip, Rhodes said, was Obama’s 50-minute audience with Pope Francis at Vatican City.
“That sense of trying to help bring hope to the hopeless places I think was something that the president found very moving in his conversation with the pope,” Rhodes said.