U.S. President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah discussed "tactical differences" in their approach to some issues during a meeting in Riyadh on Friday, but agreed both sides remain strategically aligned, a senior U.S. official said. Obama also assured Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran.
In the runup to his visit to the kingdom, officials had said Obama would aim to persuade the monarch that Saudi concerns that Washington was slowly disengaging from the Middle East and no longer listening to its old ally were unfounded.
Last year senior Saudi officials warned of a "major shift" away from Washington after bitter disagreements about its response to the "Arab Spring" uprisings, and policy towards Iran and Syria, where Riyadh wants more American support for rebels. Obama told the king that Washington remained concerned about providing some shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels
On his first visit to the kingdom since 2009, Obama met Abdullah and other senior princes of the ruling al-Saud family in the monarch's desert farm at Rawdat Khuraim northeast of the capital Riyadh.
The official said the two leaders had spoken frankly about a number of issues and "what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but President Obama made very clear he believes our strategic interests remain very much aligned," the official said.
The official added that Obama had assured the king that "we won't accept a bad deal" on Iran and that the king "listened very carefully" to what Obama said. The official said it was important for Obama to come and explain the U.S. position face-to-face with the king.
Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia were not raised in talks th talks either, a U.S. official said.
"Today, given the extent of time they spent on Iran and Syria, they didn't get to a number of issues, and it wasn't just human rights," the official said. The official added that Obama on Saturday would present a State Department Woman of Courage Award to a Saudi woman fighting domestic violence.
After two hours of talks with the monarch, the White House released a statement saying that Obama reiterated the significance the United States places on its "strong relationship" with Saudi Arabia in Friday's meeting. The statement added that Washington and Riyadh were working together to address critical bilateral and regional issues, including "the crisis in Syria, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, counterterrorism efforts to combat extremism, and supporting negotiations to achieve Middle East peace."
"In his meetings with King Abdullah in Riyadh, President Obama reiterated the significance the United States places on its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has endured for over 80 years," the statement said. It added that Saudi Arabia had been "a strong U.S. counterterrorism partner, particularly on disrupting Al-Qaida elements."
While Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, supplies less petroleum to the United States than in the past, safeguarding its energy output remains important to Washington, as does its cooperation in combating Al-Qaida.
Saudi rulers are hoping for the United States to shift its position on support for Syrian rebels, whom Riyadh has backed in their battle to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
They have previously fretted about Washington's reluctance to allow the supply of surface-to-air missiles, sometimes known as manpads, for fear they could end up in the hands of militants outside of Syria.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben 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 when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy," he told reporters on Air Force One.
But he added Washington still had concerns over the supply of manpads to rebels, and that one of the main topics Obama and Abdullah would discuss would be how to empower the moderate opposition to counter Assad and isolate extremist groups.
King Abdullah and his family believe it is a strategic imperative to end 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 Assad's main foreign backers more open to the idea of a political transition that involves a change of government
However, Obama has shown himself wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Muslim world after working hard to end or reduce American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Saudis also wanted more reassurance on American intentions regarding talks over Iran's nuclear program, which might eventually lead to a deal that ends sanctions on Tehran in exchange for concessions on its atomic facilities.
Riyadh fears such a deal could come at the expense of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East, some of whom fear that Shi'ite Iran will take advantage of any reduction in international pressure to spread its influence by supporting coreligionists.
An editorial in the semi-official al-Riyadh newspaper on Friday said that 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.
Rhodes said Washington would not ignore Saudi concerns about Iranian action in the Middle East while it pursued a deal on Tehran's nuclear program.
"We'll be making clear that 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 Hezbollah, its destabilizing actions in Yemen and the Gulf, that those concerns remain constant," he said.
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