April 21, 2016

In News

Obama Aims to Reassure Persian Gulf Allies in Saudi Arabia

President Obama, at a summit meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council, said the United States will work with Arab allies to defeat the Islamic State and to end the civil war in Syria.
By REUTERS on Publish DateApril 21, 2016. Photo by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama joined the leaders of six Persian Gulf nations on Thursday for a summit meeting intended to reassure allies in the region that the United States is committed to their security.

In a series of closed-door sessions, Mr. Obama and his counterparts were expected to discuss ways to promote regional security, efforts to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and how best to deal with Iran.

Before the trip, American officials said they hoped the summit meeting would build on discussions with top Persian Gulf officials that took place when Mr. Obama hosted a similar group at Camp David a year ago.

Rob Malley, the president’s top Middle East adviser, told reporters that the leaders would talk about how to “shore up their security; and second, how we could work together more effectively to deal with the regional conflicts that were tearing the region apart.”

On Thursday, Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, said the meetings took place during “a moment of opportunity” when fragile cease-fire agreements in Syria and Yemen might help convince the gulf states to refocus their attention on the terrorist threat in the region and the diplomatic efforts for a political transition in Syria.

“There is broad agreement about where we are trying to go in the region,” Mr. Rhodes said in Riyadh. “What this summit allows us to do is to make sure we align our approaches and strategies.”

White House officials said there would be no major announcements coming out of the summit meeting, although they hinted that the leaders were expected to commit to new cooperation on counterterrorism activities, to bolstering the region’s ballistic missile defense system, and to American help to combat cyberthreats.

Mr. Rhodes acknowledged that several of the gulf nations continue to be eager to purchase modern weapons systems, like fighter jets, to augment their militaries. He said the United States would continue to review further sales of those weapons.

But he said the Obama administration was eager to shift the focus of assistance away from big equipment and toward the development of special forces and technology to thwart the threat of cyberattacks from the Islamic State and from Iran.

The large-scale weapons that the United States has sold in the past are “not necessarily the capabilities that are best designed to deal with the threats that we face,” Mr. Rhodes added.

But more broadly, for Mr. Obama, the meeting offers an opportunity to reassure allies in the region that the United States government remains steadfast in its pledge to defend them against regional threats, including efforts by Iran they view as destabilizing.

Mr. Obama’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have unnerved gulf countries, some of whom view them as evidence of a shift in American interests away from the Persian Gulf nations.

The summit meeting is taking place at the Diriyah Palace, which Mr. Obama entered Thursday morning, walking down a chandelier-filled hallway and past a phalanx of Saudi soldiers holding gold swords.

The president posed for photograph with the Arab leaders before taking his place at a small, round table where he chatted with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

Later on Thursday, Mr. Obama was expected to depart Saudi Arabia for London, where he will have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II, eat dinner with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, and meet with Prime Minister David Cameron.