President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, leading a 30-member delegation that included officials and lawmakers, as well as senior officials from previous presidential administrations following the death of King Abdullah.
Underscoring the importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance that extends beyond oil interests to regional security, Obama cut short the final day of his trip to India to make a four-hour stop in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.
While in Riyadh, President Obama and new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz held their first formal talks. A U.S. official said the two leaders discussed a variety of Middle East security issues and stability on the oil market.
The official said Obama also raised the topic of human rights.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama had a close relationship with King Abdullah, who was believed to be about 90 when he died on Friday, and wanted to forge the same ties with Salman.
Obama and King Abdullah "did not always agree, but they could be candid in their differences, but they were also able to do a lot of things together," he said.
"And I think he’ll want to develop the same kind of relationship with King Salman, where we’re able to move forward on areas of common interest and able to be very candid and frank with one another about developments in the region,” Rhodes said.
Asked by reporters aboard Air Force One whether the U.S. considered Salman of good health, Rhodes said, "We certainly do believe ... that he is ready to assume the duties of king of Saudi Arabia. ... And we believe that he’s made clear that he’s ready to take the reins and sustain the U.S. relationship that is based on a series of overlapping interests."
Obama's visit comes as Washington struggles with worsening strife in the Middle East and counts Saudi Arabia among its few steady partners in a campaign against Islamic State militants who have seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. security headache worsened last week with the resignation of Yemen's government after clashes in the capital involving Iran-backed rebels -- a setback to U.S. efforts to contain al-Qaida in that country and to limit the regional influence of Shi'ite Muslim Iran.
The Yemen government's collapse will be of deep concern to Saudi Arabia because of the long border they share and because of the advance of Iran, Sunni Saudi's main regional rival.
Saudi Arabia's role in rallying Arab support for action with Western countries against the Islamic State group has won praise in Washington, which along with other Western nations values the kingdom as an important market for its defense industries.
In his initial days on the throne, Salman, 79, has given little indication that he plans to bring fundamental changes to his country's policies.
In a nationally televised address shortly after his half brother's death, Salman vowed to hew to “the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment.”
Following King Abdullah's death last week, however, human rights groups have highlighted Saudi Arabia's history of prisoner executions, discrimination against women and minority groups, and quashing of political dissidents during his nine-year reign.
Obama acknowledged that the U.S. willingness to pursue close ties with Saudi Arabia despite human rights abuses often makes America's allies uncomfortable.
The president said he has found it most effective to apply steady pressure over human rights “even as we are getting business done that needs to get done.”
“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” Obama said in a CNN interview that aired in advance of Obama's arrival in Riyadh.
“On this visit, obviously a lot of this is just paying respects to King Abdullah, who in his own fashion presented some modest reform efforts within the kingdom,” Obama said.
Issues raised in India
While in India, Obama had stressed the issues of equality for women and religious tolerance during a speech. Rhodes was asked by reporters aboard Air Force One if Obama, who has two daughters, would raise those same issues in his meeting with Salman.
"What the president would say is that it’s not simply a matter of the United States telling other countries what they should do. It's frankly the fact that societies are more successful when they respect those type of universal values," Rhodes answered.
"Places don’t change overnight, but I think with Saudi Arabia, what we’ve said we support is a reform process that does provide for greater respect for those types of universal values," he added.
King Salman led an honor guard of senior Saudi princes and officials to greet the Obamas as they disembarked, including the crown prince and deputy crown prince and the kingdom's veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi.
During his stop in Saudi Arabia, Obama was to hold his first formal meeting with Salman, and then attend a dinner with other Saudi officials at the Erga Palace.
A 30-member U.S. delegation traveling to Saudi Arabia includes current officials and lawmakers as well as senior officials from previous presidential administrations, the White House said.
“It meets the threshold of being bipartisan, high-level and people who worked very closely with Saudi Arabia over many years,” Rhodes said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan and the head of U.S. Central Command General Lloyd Austin are among the members of Obama's administration going to Saudi Arabia.
Former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice will also join the president, along with former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Stephen Hadley.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is a frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East, is also part of the delegation.
Despite an alliance between the two countries that has long been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, the oil-rich kingdom has made clear its impatience with the Obama administration's failure to do more to oust Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and its anxiety over U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
The two countries have found renewed purpose for their security partnership in the joint fight against the Islamic State group, though Saudi Arabia remains unhappy with Obama's resistance to large-scale U.S. arming of the mainstream Syrian rebels.
Still looming, however, is the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran, which would be a major legacy achievement for Obama, but which Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's top Sunni power, worries could help strengthen Tehran's influence in the region.
Aru Pande contributed to this report from aboard Air Force One. Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.