RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — After discussing the Ukraine crisis with allies in Europe, President Barack Obama's attention is now in Saudi Arabia, where he arrived on Friday to try to ease Saudi concerns about U.S. policy on Iran and Syria.
Saudi Arabia is a longtime friend and energy source of the United States, but its rulers have quietly expressed concerns about the direction of U.S. policy in Iran and Syria.
They made those concerns known to Obama on Friday in a meeting of more than two hours that U.S. officials describe as a frank discussion.
Immediately after landing in Riyadh, the president boarded a helicopter and flew to a desert camp to meet with the King Abdullah.
The meeting took place in an ornate room with gilded chairs and under jeweled chandeliers. The 89-year-old king appeared to be wearing oxygen tubes, but officials said he engaged in a vigorous discussion and articulated his views.
Topping the list of concerns is Iran - a rival of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are wary that U.S. negotiations on lifting sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions from Tehran may compromise security in the region.
David Ottaway, a scholar at the Wilson Center research organization who has written extensively on U.S.-Saudi relations, said, “The Saudis are much less worried about nuclear talks than they are about what this means for the relationship for the United States and Saudi Arabia, because they are worried if there is any kind of agreement on nuclear talks, the U.S. and Iran will then try to look for other areas of cooperation," he said.
The Saudis also have grievances about Obama's decision to not follow up on his threats to strike at the Syrian government after its poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb last year, and what the Saudis see as Washington's reluctance to arm Syrian rebels.
In a move that could ease Saudi concerns, the U.S. on Friday said it is considering allowing shipments of air defense systems - known as manpads - to the rebels.
The White House says that while the U.S. and Saudi views have - in the words of one senior official - “not been exactly aligned,” there is no fundamental split in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Obama came here after a tour of Europe, where he worked to build up support among allies to end the crisis in Ukraine. The president spoke Friday to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and asked him to put in writing a concrete response to a proposal the U.S. has presented for a diplomatic solution.
That proposal calls for a pullback of Russian troops. The president spoke to Scott Pelley of CBS Evening News during an earlier stop in Rome.
"I think it is well known and well acknowledged you've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing," said Obama. "And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they've got additional plans. And, in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be to Russia, for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community."
The U.S. also wants Russia to engage in dialogue with the Ukrainian government.
Secretary of State John Kerry presented the proposal to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in The Hague days ago. Kerry and the Russian official are due to meet again in the coming days.