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Obama and Saudi king stress warm ties at White House summit

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia s King Salman held a long-delayed first White House summit Friday marked by warm public words, despite differing views on Middle Eastern crises.

Obama made the rare move of greeting the 79-year-old monarch at the doors of the White House, as he hailed the “longstanding friendship” between the two countries.

Salman s inaugural visit as king — originally scheduled for May and canceled by Riyadh — had been billed as a way of putting relations back on a more stable footing.

In the Oval Office, Obama was effusive, saying he wanted to “once again reaffirm not only our personal friendship, but the deep and abiding friendship between our two people.”

For his part Salman said his visit was a “symbol of the deep and strong relationship that we have with the United States.”

After the meeting, the allies released a joint statement, published by the White House and later read out at a news conference by Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir.

In it, they outlined their joint determination to defeat the Islamic State group and to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria that would see Bashar Al-Assad step down.

Meanwhile, Al-Jubeir said King Salman accepted Obama s assurances that the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

These meetings normally end in “some kind of public statement that puts as positive a spin as possible on the meeting,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But behind the warm public statements, there are disagreements on Syria and Yemen and lingering Saudi doubts about the Iran deal.

The White House said that during the meeting Salman “expressed his support” for the Iran deal.

Saudi officials have privately expressed grave misgivings that the nuclear agreement may legitimize their arch-foe Iran.

Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia had consulted its European and Arab allies and had studied the deal and was reassured that it has “snapback provisions” to reimpose sanctions if Iran breaks its terms.

To assuage Saudi concerns and bolster Riyadh s military edge, the pair also discussed fast-tracking the provision of military equipment to the kingdom, including missile defense technology.

Obama acknowledged only that the two sides had much to discuss.

“This is obviously a challenging time in world affairs, particularly in the Middle East,” Obama said, adding that the pair would discuss a “wide range of issues.”

Obama said the two sides “share concerns” about the need to restore a functioning government in Yemen and relieve an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in Yemen to oust Iranian-backed rebels soon after Salman and his son and defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad, came to power.

The United States has supported that effort, but has repeatedly warned about the impact the fighting has had on civilians.

The UN has estimated that around six million people in Yemen face possible starvation and 850,000 children face acute malnutrition.

The White House and Al-Jubeir said King Salman had committed to “work toward opening Red Sea ports” that would bring vital supplies, so long as the operation is monitored by the United Nations.

Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia fears the ports could be used by Iran or others to bring weapons to Huthi Shiite militias, and emphasised that the kingdom had provided tens of millions of dollars in aid.

And the minister said Saudi Arabia was in “intense” talks with Russia, the United States and Syrian opposition groups about a political accord to end the violence in Syria.

“The two leaders reiterated that any meaningful political transition would have to include the departure of Bashar Al-Assad who has lost legitimacy to lead Syria,” the joint statement said.

But Saudi Arabia s backing for opposition groups like Jaysh al-Islam, an amalgam of factions that include hardline Islamists, has concerned the White House.

Riyadh views Sunni fighters as a counterbalance to the Iranian-backed Shia militias helping prop up Bashar al-Assad.

“The kingdom sees the conflict against the Iranian-supported Assad regime as an extension of the wider Persian-Arab rivalry,” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ahead of the meeting, senior Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes said the White House wants to make sure both countries have a common view on which Syrian opposition groups get support.

“We are looking to isolate more extremist elements of the opposition, that s been an ongoing conversation with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Friday s meeting also afforded US officials a closer look at Salman s son and heir apparent Muhammad.

Although relatively new to the world stage — even the 30-something s age is not known for sure — he is believed to be one of the architects of Riyadh s newfound military assertiveness in Yemen.

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