CAIRO â€“ After a four-day visit to Europe, President Barack Obama is ending his overseas trip in Saudi Arabia in an effort to warm relations with the oil-rich nation, analysts said.
His overnight trip is an intimate affair: a meeting and a dinner with King Abdullah at his desert camp outside the Saudi capital of Riyadh. It is the only event made public on his schedule.
The visit “is the result of a great deal of discord in the Saudi-U.S. relationship,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington D.C.
“It’s obviously prompted by some very serious Saudi misgivings, and they’ve made a great deal of noise that they’re unhappy.”
“He’s there to signal at a very high level that the U.S. does take Saudi concerns seriously,” Wehrey said.
Saudi Arabia’s primary grievances revolve around U.S. policy in the region, particularly toward Syria and Iran, which will be at the top of Obama’s agenda, analysts said.
The relationship between the two nations began to fray three years ago when protests against longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak swelled, and Obama turned against him, experts said.
Now, Saudi leaders are worried about Obama’s outreach to Iran as Washington seeks to reach a deal over its nuclear program, analysts said. And the Saudis believe the U.S. is not doing enough to help those fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
“From the Saudi perspective, Obama defaulted on his commitment to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons and has failed to give the Syrian people the weapons they need to exercise their right of self-defence against the murderous Alawite regime and its foreign backers,” said Tom Phillips, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a London-based institute.
The Saudis also think the U.S. went behind their backs to reach an interim nuclear deal with Iran, and â€“ among other concerns â€“ that the U.S. views the Arab Spring and prospects for Western-style democracy in the region too simplistically, Phillips wrote in a recent report.
Obama has not responded favorably to the military-backed government in Egypt, which took charge after a coup last July by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi â€“ Egypt’s former army chief who resigned from the military this week in order to run for president.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia vowed to send billions of dollars in aid to Egypt after Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power. The Gulf country also declared the Egyptian government’s main political opponent â€“ the Muslim Brotherhood â€“ a terrorist organization.
“There’s a real difference in the way the two states are reading the Middle East and are responding to the Middle East,” Wehrey said, referring to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Obama spent the past four days trying to secure European unity against Russia’s incursion and subsequent annexation of Crimea. But ahead of his meeting with King Abdullah, Obama also met with Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates federation and a Saudi ally.
Friday’s talks also come in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant a visa to the Washington bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post who had sought to cover Obama’s trip. Rhodes told reporters that the U.S. government reached out to Riyadh to intervene but to no avail.
“We made it clear how important it was to us that this journalist, like any other journalist, have access to cover the president’s trip,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press