Barack Obama is travelling with a 27-strong delegation to cement ties with the new king of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday as concerns over Yemen and theIslamic State take centre stage in the increasingly volatile region.
Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan, Republican hawk senator John McCain and General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command forces in the region, are among the surprise additions to a hastily organised trip that has drawn critical comparisons with the US failure to send any senior figures to Paris following recent terrorist attacks.
Secretary of state John Kerry and leading House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crowley, who have both been travelling with Obama in Delhi, will also accompany him on the unscheduled stop off at the king’s palace in Riyadh.
Obama broke short his trip to India, skipping a promised visit with Michelle Obama to the Taj Mahal, in order to make the visit – something officials say was a logistical necessity to get security assets in place in time that would have been used on the trip to Agra.
Officially, the visit is to pay respects following the death of King Abdullah, but officials concede that its wider purpose is to ensure that the handover of power to successor King Salman does not affect US interests at a time of great uncertainty.
“Principally, I think this is to mark this transition in leadership and to pay respects to the family and to the people of Saudi Arabia but I’m sure that while we’re there they’ll touch on some of the leading issues where we cooperate very closely with Saudi Arabia,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Delhi.
“Clearly, that would include the continued counter-Islamic State campaign where the Saudis have been a partner and have joined us in military operations in Syria; of course, also the situation in Yemen, where we have coordinated very closely with Saudi Arabia.”
The White House rejected critical comparisons with its failure to rearrange schedules for the Paris rally, insisting that the death of a sitting head of state was a different matter and pointed to its willingness to attend the funeral of Poland’s president – a trip that was nevertheless cancelled due to a volcanic ash cloud.
A nine-person US delegation has been sent to the ceremony marking the liberation of Auschwitz on Tuesday. It is being headed by treasury secretary Jack Lew – the fifth person in the presidential line of succession.
Human rights groups have also called on Obama to make more of an issue of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of political opponents during his visit, something the White House says is a regular feature of its dialogue but would not confirm was on the agenda this time.
“While we recognise that Saudi Arabia is in a period of mourning, it must also be acknowledged that there are serious concerns about torture and unlawful detention or beheading by the authorities in the past decade,” said a statement by Amnesty International.
“Saudi Arabia’s human rights reforms must be a priority for the next king.”
Politicians in the UK last week criticised a decision to fly flags at half-mast to mark Abdullah’s death.
The houses of parliament and Westminster Abbey were among the buildings where government guidance was followed in line with protocol that says it is appropriate following the death of a foreign monarch.
The tribute was paid even though the sentencing of a Saudi blogger to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam had thrust Saudi Arabia’s human rights record into the spotlight.