U.S. President’s low-key arrival and meeting with King Salman underscores tension that has deepened over US policy towards Iran and the war in Syria
Barack Obama arrived to a noticeably low-key reception in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday against a background of mutual irritation in a relationship tested by a turbulent Middle East, plummeting oil prices and economic and political uncertainty.
The US president was greeted at the airport by the governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, and the event was not broadcast live on Saudi TV, as is routine with visiting heads of state – quickly generating talk of a snub.
Underlining the coolness, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, accompanied by other senior figures, was shown earlier on state television greeting the leaders of neighbouring states on the tarmac – ahead of Thursday’s summit of the six-member, Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation council, which Obama is to address.
Shortly afterwards King Salman greeted Obama in the opulent surroundings of the capital’s al-Auja palace, where they posed for a photo opportunity and exchanged stilted formal remarks before a two hour meeting .
“The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-US summit that’s taking place tomorrow, Obama said. Salman responded: “I and the Saudi people are very pleased that you, Mr President, are visiting us.”
Official pictures also showed Obama shaking hands with the king’s son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the embodiment of newly assertive Saudi policies in Yemen and the architect of far-reaching economic reforms necessitated by diminishing oil revenues.
Looking on was the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the favourite of western governments who see him as an invaluable partner in counter-terrorism and intelligence, key strands in the kingdom’s relationship with its western allies.
Heavy security measures were in force in Riyadh with helicopters circling overhead and police vehicles stationed at intersections leading to the Ritz Carlton hotel, where the president’s delegation is staying. Restaurants and shops on roads where the motorcades of the leaders had to pass were closed.
Obama is paying his fourth and almost certainly final trip to Saudi Arabia since becoming president amid widespread comment about trouble in a relationship dating back to the 1940s and based on Saudi oil and US strategic backing. Disagreements have multiplied especially over US policy towards Iran and the war in Syria.
The president’s recent comment that the Saudis and Iranians should “share the neighbourhood” angered officials in Riyadh, leading to sharp public criticism of an American “pivot” towards the Islamic Republic in the run up to last summer’s landmark nuclear agreement.
Mustafa Alani, a Gulf security analyst who is close to the Saudi establishment, said Obama would find a leadership “that’s not ready to believe him”. The decision not to send a high-level delegation to the airport was intended to signal that they have little faith in him. “The Saudis had disagreements with previous presidents,” Alani told the Associated Press. “Here you have deep distrust that the president won’t deliver anything.”
It was not known if the king and president had discussed a report that Saudi Arabia has threatened to sell its multibillion dollar US assets if Congress passes a bill that could hold the kingdom responsible for any role in the 9/11 attacks. Obama opposes the bill because it could expose the US to lawsuits from citizens of other countries.