WASHINGTON – The Obama administration will shift its attention back to the Middle East from the Crimea on Friday, when US President Barack Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia for a no-frills visit to the Arab kingdom.
The US president plans to spend one evening with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud after spending five days in Western Europe, meeting with its leaders and visiting a number of its cultural sites.
The US president visited the Rijkmuseum, the Museum of the Netherlands, on Monday, as well as the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels on Wednesday. He will also have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican before traveling to the Middle East.
Once he arrives in Riyadh on Friday afternoon, however, the cultural exchange will end: the president plans no public events or visits to historic Saudi sites, similar to his last whirlwind visit to the country in 2009, which lasted mere hours.
US officials expect Obama and Abdullah will focus on closing policy gaps between the US and the kingdom with respect to three of the greatest security dilemmas facing both nations: Syria’s intractable civil war, Iran’s nuclear program and the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Saudi government has done little to stop the flow of extremist fighters into the Syrian conflict – over 2,500 on the ground operating in Syria are of Saudi descent. But the US now believes the two governments have policy interests closely aligned on the dangers of terrorist entities nesting in the heart of the Levant.
The White House saw movement from Riyadh when, in early February, Abdullah issued a rare royal decree outlawing travel abroad by Saudi citizens intending to join jihadist movements.
The decree threatens punishment of 20 years in jail to those who violate the new measure.
Obama administration officials, in turn, conducted an expedited policy review on Syria leading up to the visit.
Common ground on the other two issues, however, will be difficult to reach for the two heads of state.
Saudi Arabia has privately expressed pessimism that nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 – the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – will produce results satisfactory to the king. Similar to the government in Israel, the Saudis seek a full dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program – expanding over 20,000 centrifuges across multiple sites, with a second, heavy-water track toward a nuclear weapon.
And on Wednesday, the Arab League – of which Saudi Arabia is the largest member – reconfirmed its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considers a “minimal requirement for peace” with the Palestinians.
Obama arrives Friday afternoon, and will return to Washington on Saturday.