Obama with new Saudi King
Obama with new Saudi King

US President Barack Obama landed Tuesday in Saudi Arabia with a 30-strong delegation – among them members of the Republican Party – to pay his condolences on the passing of King Abdullah and to meet his successor, King Salman.

Obama with new Saudi King
Obama with new Saudi King

The visit is meant to bolster ties between the United States and its key Middle East ally and serves as a chance for Obama to get to know the new ruler.

“He had a close relationship with King Abdullah. They could pick up the phone. They did not always agree, but they could be candid in their differences, but they were also able to do a lot of things together,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House Deputy National Security Adviser.

“I think he’ll want to develop the same kind of relationship with King Salman,” Rhodes said on the Air Force One flight from India to Riyadh.

Relations have been strained in recent years, in part due to Washington’s willingness to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia is not only concerned that Iran could obtain a nuclear bomb, it also frets about what concessions its regional rival might receive and whether there might be a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington after more than three decades of strained relations.

The Saudis under Abdullah also wanted the US to do more to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Tehran.

Obama last visited the kingdom in March 2014. The two nations have since found common ground in the fight against the jihadist Islamic State militia, which has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq, nearing the Saudi border.

Saudi jets have taken part in air raids against Islamic State positions in Syria.

As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia remains a crucial part of US efforts to implement its vision of global stability.

Experts say the absolute monarchy is unlikely to change its oil production levels, despite low prices.

Salman takes over the throne at a time of major regional unrest, in addition to the expansion of the Islamic State.

Neighbouring Yemen is in turmoil, facing a collapsing central government under pressure from Shiite Houthi rebels and a threat from al-Qaeda.

Syria’s civil war continues to rage out of control and remains a beacon for foreign jihadists looking to join a fight.

Human rights activists want Obama to use his visit to Riyadh to raise concerns about the use of the death penalty, including beheadings, and corporeal punishment.

Saudi Arabia has made headlines this month over a number of executions and a punishment handed down to liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes.

A beheading has already reportedly taken place under King Salman’s new rule.

The US has historically tread carefully on rights issues in Saudi Arabia, although Obama did reference women’s rights while in India this week.

Women face severe restrictions in the kingdom and are not allowed to drive cars.

Obama will spend about four hours in Saudi Arabia before heading back to the US via a brief refueling stop in Germany.

The president and First Lady Michelle Obama were treated to a red carpet welcome and both shook the hands of the Saudi delegation that met them at the airport in Riyadh.

GNA

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