Obama Meets With New Saudi King Amid Iran Talks, Yemen Turmoil

President Barack Obama left Saudi Arabia Tuesday after paying respects following the death of King Abdullah and meeting with the new Saudi king on the issues roiling the region, including battling Islamic State extremists and the upheaval in Yemen.

Obama and new Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talked for a little more than an hour after a dinner, dealing with subjects of common interest as well as those causing friction in a key strategic alliance, according to an administration official who briefed reporters as Obama flew back to the U.S.

The two touched briefly on oil-market stability, and the official said the U.S. doesn’t expect any changes in the Saudi position of maintaining production even as the price of oil has tumbled 58 percent since June. There was no discussion about oil prices, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity about the private discussions.

The visit was an opportunity for Obama to size up the new king as the leader of a nation that has long been a linchpin of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Salman, 79, is less-known to the U.S. than was Abdullah, who had been an ally of U.S. presidents of both political parties. The Saudis have been skeptical of slow U.S. progress on stability in Syria and an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Crucial Role

“President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia is far more than a symbolic gesture of continuing U.S. support for the kingdom at a time of transition in its top leadership,” David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in an e-mail. “It signals his acknowledgment of its crucial role in showing Arab support for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

Obama raised the issue of human rights, a point of contention between the two countries, as part of a discussion about countering the ideology that has fueled extremism, the official said. He didn’t discuss specific cases, including that of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger condemned to 1,000 lashes after being found guilty of insulting Islam.

In an interview recorded in India on Tuesday before he left for Riyadh, Obama defended his approach to dealing with human rights issues with allies such as Saudi Arabia.

“Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability,” Obama said in an interview with CNN.

Syria, Iran

The two nations also have differed on dealing with the civil war in Syria and on how best to engage with Iran, a rival to Saudi influence in the region. Saudi Arabia is important for U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program and counter growing turmoil in Yemen, where the government collapsed amid a rebellion by Shiite Houthi forces. The U.S. closed its consulate there to the public on Monday.

While Saudi Arabia has chafed at the U.S. pleas for patience in trying to negotiate an agreement that would prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, the administration official said the king didn’t express any reservations about the current course of the U.S.-led talks.

“The Saudis fear an agreement would lead to a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement at their expense,” Ottaway said. “Obama will doubtlessly seek to reassure Salman of continued American support for the security of the kingdom regardless of the outcome.”

King Salman led the entourage that greeted Obama as he landed. Crown Prince Muqrin and second-in-line to the throne Prince Mohammed bin Nayef were also present.

U.S. Delegation

Obama led a bipartisan 30-person delegation of current and former officials that included Republican foreign policy heavyweights, including James Baker, secretary of state at the time of the first Persian Gulf war in 1991; Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser during the 2003 Iraq war; and Brent Scowcroft, who served two Republican presidents as national security adviser.

Before flying to Saudi Arabia, where women are prohibited by law from driving, Obama delivered a speech in New Delhi in which he called for equality and opportunity for women in that country as well as religious freedom.

“We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful,” he said to an audience primarily of young Indian people.

Obama cut short the long-planned visit to India, irking some Indians by canceling a visit Tuesday to the Taj Mahal in Agra to stop in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, on his way home to Washington.