ASG's Prem Kumar Quoted in FT about Saudi King's Oval Office Meeting

King Salman of Saudi Arabia makes first visit to US

By Demetri Sevastopulo and Simeon Kerr

King Salman of Saudi Arabia arrived in Washington on Thursday night with four aeroplanes carrying hundreds of officials for his first visit to the US since taking the helm of the oil-rich nation in January.

As his entourage fans across the capital to meet politicians and officials, King Salman will meet Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Friday, just days after the US president clinched crucial support in Congress for the Iran nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia has publicly supported despite private concerns.

The two leaders will seek to reaffirm the historic importance of the Saudi-American partnership, despite complex shifts in regional dynamics resulting from the Iran deal and increasingly sectarian internal conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

While Mr Obama has secured enough congressional support for the Iran deal, he wants to retain Saudi support to help counter the backlash from opponents in Congress who will continue efforts to castigate the agreement.

“This meeting is more about reassurance in terms of continued Saudi support for the Iran deal,” said Prem Kumar, a former White House official now at the Albright Stonebridge Group, adding that the king would want assurances that the US would boost efforts to counter Iranian activities in the region.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser, said the US expected the king “to continue to express the positions that they have over the last several weeks, which is noting comfort with the Iran deal . . . but having very real concerns about other Iranian behaviour in the region”.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have long been concerned about the prospect of the nuclear deal. The Gulf Co-operation Council in July endorsed the deal in a diplomatic coup for the US, but only after Mr Obama told them at Camp David in April that the US would provide more military assets, including helping to create a missile defence system.

One Middle East expert said the shield against Iranian missiles was far from fruition because of disagreements in the Gulf over how it would be manned. “They have got a long way to go to straighten that out,” said the expert.

The Obama administration must also deflect criticism from opponents in Congress that its efforts to arm Saudi Arabia will jeopardise the qualitative military edge that it guarantees Israel.

From Syria and Iraq, to Lebanon and Yemen, the Arab Sunni Gulf states believe that Shia Iranian interference is aggravating sectarian regional conflicts, and fear that an end to sanctions will embolden the Islamic republic. Despite Washington’s decision to back bloody Saudi-led military action against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Gulf states still believe the US has turned its back on its historic allies.

Coalition officials say Washington, despite its backing, has tried to constrain the Arab states’ military operation in Yemen. The increasingly assertive axis of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has nonetheless pushed ahead with a dangerous ground invasion and push towards the rebels’ northern heartlands. The UAE on Friday announced that 22 of its soldiers had been killed in Yemen.

After nearly a decade of isolation Iran has agreed a breakthrough deal with six world powers to wind back the country’s progress towards building a nuclear bomb in exchange for a sweeping reversal of international economic sanctions

Ties have has also been strained over the Syria conflict. Mr Kumar said Washington and Riyadh “don’t see eye to eye” on Syria, and that Saudi Arabia wants the US to provide more support for the opposition in Syria and to put more pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“The president will be willing to accommodate the Saudi concerns to some degree . . . (but) I don’t think that it will involve a wholesale change in Syria policy.”

In a two-pronged approach to the Syrian conflict and a sign that ultimately Saudi views on Mr Assad may shift, Saudi Arabia has also increased diplomatic contacts with Russia. King Salman has also been invited to Moscow, whose relations with Riyadh have been strained given Russian support for regional rival Iran and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The king’s influential son and deputy crown prince, 30-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, has been reforging dialogue with Russia, which — alongside Iran — has fortified the eroding foundations of Mr Assad’s rule. “There is a shift going on, a rational change, to show that Saudi Arabia doesn’t take things personally any more,” said Abdullah Alshammri, a former diplomat. “Before there was a personal issue with Bashar [al-Assad], but now policy is becoming more pragmatic.”

There is also talk that Saudi Arabia, listening to its regional allies, may be prepared to accept that Mr Assad is preferable to a Sunni jihadist onslaught on the capital. Others speculate that Riyadh might accept political discussions with Mr Assad over the future in return for Iranian military personnel leaving Syria.

While the meeting in the Oval Office may not produce everything each side wants, the visit will provide a big boost to Washington’s hospitality industry, and hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. Sources familiar with the Saudi delegation say each official is provided with significant “pocket money” to spend while in the capital.

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