WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi King Salman met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday to seek more support in countering Iran, as the Obama administration aims to use the visit to shore up relations after a period of tensions.
The visit is the king’s first to the United States since ascending to the throne in January 2015, and comes after the United States agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran in July, raising Gulf Arab fears that the lifting of sanctions on Iran would enable it to pursue destabilising policies in the Middle East.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has suffered strain because of what Riyadh sees as Obama’s withdrawal from the region, a lack of direct U.S. action against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and a perceived U.S. tilt towards Iran since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
But the countries share many strategic objectives and depend on each other on a number of core security, economic, and political issues.
“We’ll discuss the importance of effectively implementing the (Iran nuclear) deal to insure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon while counteracting its destabilising activities in the region,” President Obama, seated next to Salman, told reporters before the meeting in the Oval Office on Friday.
“We share a concern about the crisis in Syria and we’ll have the opportunity to discuss how we can allow a political transition process within Syria that can finally end the horrific conflict there,” he said.
Also in the Oval Office with Salman and Obama were Vice-President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Saudi Arabia and the United States are “close strategic partners in spite of their differences,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. But he said the Obama administration “needs to reassure its allies and reinforce its commitment to that partnership,” especially given Saudi concerns about the Iran nuclear deal.
Salman skipped a Gulf Arab summit at Camp David in May, a move widely seen as a diplomatic snub over Obama’s Iran strategy - though both governments denied that interpretation.
Obama secured a political victory this week, when enough Senate Democrats threw their support behind the Iran nuclear deal to sustain a threatened veto of any congressional vote of disapproval.
Critics say the deal will empower Iran economically to increase its support of militant groups in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are opposed on a number of regional issues, especially the 4 1/2-year-long Syrian civil war and unrest in Yemen, where a coalition of Arab states led by Riyadh - assisted by the United States - are targeting Iran-allied Houthi forces.
Obama said on Friday that he and Salman share concerns about Yemen and the need to restore a functioning government and address the humanitarian situation there. Salman said his country is willing to cooperate with the United States to achieve stability in the Middle East.
The Obama administration is focussed on providing assistance the president promised at the Camp David summit, including helping Gulf states integrate ballistic missile defence systems and beef up cyber and maritime security.
Saudi Arabia remains the world’s largest oil exporter, and its commitment to pumping oil freely despite a recent price decline has helped contribute to sustaining the U.S. economic recovery. Obama and Salman will discuss the world economy and energy issues, Obama told reporters on Friday.
Saudi Arabia has also joined the United States and other Arab states in airstrikes against the Islamic State jihadist movement in Syria, also called ISIS.
“We continue to cooperate extremely closely in countering terrorist activities in the region and around the world, including the battle against ISIS,” Obama said on Friday.
The Gulf state is also in advanced discussions with the U.S. government about buying two frigates based on a coastal warship that Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) is building for the U.S. Navy, a deal valued at well over $1 billion.
The sale would be the cornerstone of a long-delayed multibillion-dollar modernization of the Royal Saudi Navy’s Gulf-patrolling eastern fleet of ageing U.S. warships and would include smaller patrol boats.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Ken Wills, Tom Brown and Diane Craft