x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Saudi king and Obama discuss Iran’s ‘behaviour’ and arming Syrian rebels

Iran’s destabilising influence in the region along with how Washington and the kingdom could support moderate Syrian rebels were on the agenda during talks at the king’s desert retreat, the US deputy national security adviser said.

US President Barack Obama meets Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, the monarch’s desert camp northeast of Riyadh, on March 28, 2014. Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Barack Obama meets Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, the monarch’s desert camp northeast of Riyadh, on March 28, 2014. Saul Loeb / AFP

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah hosted Barack Obama at his desert retreat on Friday where the two leaders discussed how best to empower Syria’s moderate rebels and Iran’s “behaviour in the region”.

Mr Obama reiterated the significance the United States places on its “strong relationship” with Saudi Arabia during his first visit to the kingdom since 2009, the White House said after the meeting.

Washington and Riyadh are working together to address a number of critical regional issues, including resolving “the crisis in Syria, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, counterterrorism efforts to combat extremism, and supporting negotiations to achieve Middle East peace”, it added.

Before Mr Obama met the king, US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes confirmed that the war in Syria and Iran’s disputed nuclear programme were on the agenda.

“One of the main topics of conversation is how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to President Bashar Al Assad,” Mr Rhodes said.

Making his first trip to the kingdom since 2009, Mr Obama was also seeking to reassure the king, a key US partner, that negotiations over the Iranian nuclear programme would not undercut Saudi Arabia’s strategic interests.

Although “we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behaviour in the region — its support for Assad, its support for Hizbollah, its destabilising actions in Yemen and the Gulf — that those concerns remain constant”, Mr Rhodes said.

Saudi Arabia wants the United States to shift its position on support for Syrian rebels, particularly Washington’s reluctance to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, sometimes known as manpads.

Sunni Saudi Arabia is backing the mostly Sunni insurgents in their battle to topple Mr Al Assad, who is supported by Riyadh’s rival, Shiite power Iran.

But Mr Rhodes said providing such weapons to the Syrian rebels “could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria”.

The US is concerned of the threat posed by radical groups fighting to topple the Assad regime, including Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mr Obama and King Abdullah sat in plush chairs and talked to each other through translators under a massive jewelled chandelier, in front of a table full of dates and chocolates. They made no public statements.

The US delegation seated at Mr Obama’s side included US Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. There were no public statements.

King Abdullah, 90, was accompanied by a number of senior princes, and had what appeared to be an oxygen tube connected to his nose at the start of his meeting at his desert farm at Rawdat Khuraim north-east of the capital Riyadh, witnesses said.

Mr Rhodes said coordination with the kingdom on Syria policy, particularly regarding providing assistance to the Syrian rebels, had improved.

“That’s part of the reason why I think our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall (autumn) when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy,” he told reporters on Air Force One.

King Abdullah and his family believe it is a strategic imperative to end Mr Al Assad’s rule to block what they see as a threat of Iranian domination in Arab countries, a view not shared by Washington.

The Saudis hope that by strengthening the rebels, they can change the balance of power on the battlefield enough to make Mr Al Assad’s main foreign backers more open to the idea of a political transition that involves a change of government.

The Saudis also want more reassurance on American intentions regarding talks over Iran’s nuclear programme, which might eventually lead to a deal that ends sanctions on Tehran in exchange for concessions on its atomic facilities.

Under an interim agreement between Iran and world powers last year, Tehran was offered moderate sanctions relief in return for curbing some of its enrichment activities.

Riyadh fears such a deal could come at the expense of Sunnis in the Middle East, some of whom fear that Shiite Iran will take advantage of any reduction in international pressure to spread its influence by supporting co-religionists.

An editorial in the semi-official Al Riyadh newspaper on Friday said Mr Obama did not know Iran as well as the Saudis, and could not “convince us that Iran will be peaceful”.

“Our security comes first and no one can argue with us about it,” it concluded.

Mr Rhodes said Washington would not ignore Saudi concerns about Iranian action in the Middle East while it pursued a deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News