Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Obama, Saudi King Salman set to meet amid disagreements

Iran deal is at the top of the agenda, as Obama seeks to reassure allies who are uneasy about Tehran's new role

King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Friday will make his first visit to the White House since acceding to the throne in January, a meeting that comes as the long-time allies find themselves at odds on several issues, particularly over Iran’s increased role in the region.

Those differences notwithstanding, analysts say the meeting between the king and President Barack Obama is meant to reaffirm the nations’ relationship, even if it is unlikely that anything substantive will result.

“On both sides it’s less about deliverables and more about the atmospherics,” said F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

The regional impact of the Iran nuclear agreement that the U.S. and five world powers concluded with Tehran in July is at the top of the agenda.

That agreement cleared one of the last remaining hurdles this week, when President Obama secured enough legislative votes to prevent a Congressional resolution that could have derailed it. “Now that the deal with Iran is over, the administration wants to reassure allies,” said Gause.

Obama has been reaching out to them since May, when it first appeared that the Iran nuclear deal was within grasp. The U.S. sought to reassure Gulf Arab countries at a Camp David summit by strengthening ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is by far the most powerful member.

King Salman, however, declined to attend the summit and sent his crown prince and deputy crown prince instead, a move interpreted by analysts as a snub to Obama.

Washington’s Gulf allies have lent public support to the Iran deal since then, despite reservations over Tehran's regional ambitions, assuaged in part by an increase in U.S. military and logistical support.

“We’re determined that our Gulf friends will have the political and the military support that they need,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a speech on Wednesday. Kerry defended the nuclear agreement to Gulf states as limited to arms control and necessary to address shared concerns about Iran’s regional ambitions.

While Saudi Arabia appears prepared to accept the nuclear deal, it remains critical of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts, which it fears could be part of a broader U.S. strategic détente with Tehran.

“The importance of Obama’s meeting with King Salman, however, goes well beyond the politics of the Iran deal,” said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as the Obama’s administration’s White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. “Because the reality is that the United States cannot deal successfully with any of the main challenges it faces throughout the Middle East without at least a degree of strategic alignment on key issues with Riyadh, an alignment that in recent years has been lacking.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship already showed signs of fraying during the leadership of the late King Abdullah. Obama and Abdullah clashed over the U.S. withdrawal of support to former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring. The relationship was strained further over U.S. reluctance to more forcefully commit to ensuring the removal from power of the Iranian-backed Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in the course of the Syrian civil war.

Those disagreements have continued under King Salman. However, unlike his predecessor, who was cautious not to diverge far from U.S. regional policy, the new king appears comfortable taking a more proactive role in the region.

That was typified by the Saudi decision in March to launch a bombing campaign in Yemen to support Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled to Riyadh after Yemen's government was taken over by Houthi rebels. Saudi and its GCC allies view the rebels as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

The U.S. has backed that effort, and provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi-led efforts, but public statements pressing for a political resolution to the conflict and efforts to underscore the humanitarian impact suggest only tepid U.S. support for the campaign, which shows no signs of abating.

Human rights groups and critics of the war in Yemen say Obama should use Friday's meeting to press for an end to the fighting, which has so far killed more than 2,000 civilians and left the country on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, according to the United Nations.

“Obama and Salman should discuss the Saudi-led bombing campaign and agree to end indiscriminate attacks that have killed countless Yemeni civilians,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release. “The U.S. should recognize that the role it’s playing in military operations in Yemen may also make it responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces.”

Meanwhile, differences between Washington and Riyadh continue over the Syrian conflict. While the U.S. supports so-called Syrian moderate groups, the Obama administration refuses to pursue a more active effort to militarily unseat Assad, which Riyadh has long called for.

For its part, the U.S. is more preoccupied with the gains made in Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And while the two countries are ostensibly part of the same international coalition against ISIL, the fight is less important to Riyadh, where the specter of Iranian influence in Syria and elsewhere remains a more pressing issue.

Hinting at the disagreements between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amid broader shared interests, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday: “So whether it’s Yemen, Iraq, Syria, we want to make sure that we have, again, military strategies, but also political strategies that support a resolution of conflict, and again, humanitarian assistance for the many people who are in need.”

Announcements of any new strategies are unlikely on Friday, but that may be less important than just putting on a good face. The mutual goal, said Gause, is, “Let’s put aside the rancor, put a common front, and see what we can agree.”

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