RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Barack Obama opened a fence-mending visit to Saudi Arabia Friday, arriving in the oil-rich Gulf nation for meetings to reassure its elderly monarch of the U.S. commitment to the Arab world.
Despite its decades-long alliance with the United States, Saudi's royal family has become increasingly anxious in recent years over Obama's outreach to Iran and his tepid involvement in the Syrian civil war. During his evening meetings with the king, Obama will seek to reassure Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is not abandoning Arab interests despite troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater energy independence back home and nuclear talks with predominantly Persian Iran.
Obama arrived in Riyadh after four days in Europe, where he held talks with the continent's leaders about the crisis in Ukraine and had an audience with Pope Francis. The president's focus in Saudi Arabia shifts quickly to the array of Middle East matters that have complicated U.S. ties in the already combustible region.
Obama left Friday for an overnight trip to Saudi Arabia that has only two items on its public schedule: a meeting and a dinner with King Abdullah at his desert camp, a 30-minute helicopter ride from the capital of Riyadh. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled with Obama for what will be the president's third official meeting with the king in six years.
White House officials and Mideast experts say the Saudi royal family's main concern is Iran. They fear Iran's nuclear program, object to Iran's backing of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and see the government of Tehran as having designs on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One on the flight to Saudi Arabia that the issues at the heart of Obama's meetings with Abdullah include Gulf security, Middle East peace, Syria, Iran and Egypt.
On Syria, Rhodes said Obama did not plan to make any specific announcements about additional assistance to opposition forces. He said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been working together closely to coordinate their assistance to the rebels.
Rhodes said that coordination has helped put the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia "in a stronger place today than it was in the fall when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy."
"We are in a better place today than we were seven months ago," Rhodes said.
Obama angered Saudi officials by scrapping plans to launch a military strike against Syria, choosing instead to back a plan to strip Syrian President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapons.
Rhodes said Obama would update the king on the nuclear talks with Iran. He said Obama would also make the point that those negotiations do not mean U.S. concerns about other Iranian activities have lessened, including its support for Assad and Hezbollah, as well as its destabilizing activity in Yemen and the Gulf.
"Those concerns remain constant and we're not in any way negotiating those issues in the nuclear talks," he said.
Rhodes said human rights, including women's rights, would be on the agenda for Obama's meetings. But he said the U.S. has a broad range of security interests with Saudi Arabia that would be most prominent on the agenda.
"We've raised concerns around human rights issues, issues related to women's rights," Rhodes said, adding that the U.S. has to maintain "the ability to cooperate" with the Saudis on other issues.
The Saudi anxieties have been building over time, according to Simon Henderson, a fellow at The Washington Institute, a think tank focused on Middle East policy.
"Ever since Washington withdrew support for President (Hosni) Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, Abdullah and other Gulf leaders have worried about the reliability of Washington's posture toward even longstanding allies," Henderson wrote this week. "President Obama's U-turn on military action against Syria over its use of chemical weapons last summer only added to the concern, which has likely morphed into exasperation after recent events in Crimea, where the Saudis judge that President Obama was outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin."
The technological advances that have increased oil and gas production in the United States have also made Gulf states nervous, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Saban Center on Middle East Policy1 comment on this story
"A lot of people in the region, I think, are naturally asking themselves what America's energy independence means for America's willingness to invest in the security of energy and supply from the Gulf," she said.
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.