Obama, Saudi King Agree on ‘Inclusive Approach’ to Mideast Conflicts

obbPresident Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman agreed on the importance of “an inclusive approach to de-escalating regional conflicts” during a two-hour closed meeting Wednesday in Riyadh.

In a statement after the meeting at Erga Palace, the White House said the two leaders discussed the “challenges posed by Iran’s provocative activities in the [Mideast] region.”

Tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has risen over differing approaches to Iran and the fight against terrorism.

The statement said Obama welcomed the recent cessation of hostilities in Yemen “and the king’s commitment to providing humanitarian assistance across all of Yemen.”

In addition, “the president underscored the importance of accelerating the campaign against [Islamic State] and welcomed Saudi Arabia’s important role in the coalition” of nations that is fighting the militant group.

Later, Obama met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.

The meetings came a day before a Gulf Cooperation Council summit. The United States and its Arab partners will address pressing issues facing the region at the summit, which will be attended by officials from the GCC alliance of six Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

The White House on Wednesday called the summit “an important opportunity for the United States and its Gulf partners to strengthen cooperation against [the Islamic State group] and also to address regional conflicts.”

Top threats

The United States and much of Europe see Islamic State and al-Qaida as the top threats in the region and around the world. For many of the Gulf states, though, the main threat is Iran and the people and groups Tehran supports, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Sunni-majority Saudis have led a costly military intervention against the Houthis.

The White House said Obama and GCC leaders would look at ways to step up cooperation and “align” their policies and approaches in areas of mutual interest, such as countering terrorism and promoting peace and stability in places like Yemen and Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, meets with Saudi King Salman at Erga Palace upon his arrival for a summit meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 20, 2016.
Rob Malley, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said sectarian fights, like the one in Yemen, shift the focus away from the coalition’s battle against Islamic State and al-Qaida. So, he said, the White House is seeking to de-escalate those conflicts.

Saudi Arabia, which faces shrinking revenues with the downturn in oil prices, is working to build up its missile systems as regional rival Iran continues to bolster its military capabilities.
White House officials agreed the two sides would continue to work as partners to combat terrorism, help secure the region and counter Iran’s destabilizing actions.

“I don’t think that there can be any confusion or ambiguity about who is our partner in the region and who isn’t,” Malley said.

After the summit, officials are expected to announce new defense assistance for the GCC and increased cooperation.

Defense capabilities

White House officials say the assistance will include a simplified process for transferring defense capabilities to Gulf nations, plans to boost the GCC’s ballistic defense missile defense system and increased defense against cyber threats.

Expectations for significant outcomes from this summit are low, especially during a presidential election year.

“The Saudis obviously are looking at a situation where you have presidential candidates that as yet have not really provided any clear indication as to what the United States will be as an ally in the future.” Cordesman said.