Barack Obama defends US ties as he pays respects in Saudi Arabia
President Barack Obama defended the US government's willingness to cooperate closely with Saudi Arabia on national security despite deep concerns over human rights abuses, as he led an array of current and former American statesmen in paying respects today following the death of King Abdullah.
Riyadh: President Barack Obama defended the US government's willingness to cooperate closely with Saudi Arabia on national security despite deep concerns over human rights abuses, as he led an array of current and former American statesmen in paying respects today following the death of King Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia's status as one of Washington's most important Arab allies has at times appeared to trump US concerns about the terrorist funding that flows from the kingdom and about human rights abuses.
But Obama 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.
New King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman formally greeted Obama and the US delegation at the Erga Palace on the outskirts of Riyadh, where dozens of Saudi officials filed through a marble-walled room to greet the Americans under massive crystal chandeliers.
After a short dinner, Obama and Salman sat down for their first formal meeting without making any comments to reporters covering the visit.
Ahead of his arrival, Obama suggested that he would not be raising US concerns about Saudi Arabia's flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, who was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
His first flogging took place in early January in front of dozens of people in the Red Sea city of Jiddah, though a second round has been postponed after a doctor said his wounds from the first lashes had not yet healed.
"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.
Stepping off the plane earlier in Riyadh, the president and first lady Michelle Obama were greeted by Salman and a military band playing both countries' national anthems.
Some of the all-male Saudi delegation shook hands with Mrs Obama while others gave her a nod as they passed by.
Mrs Obama wore full-length clothing but no headscarf, as is typical for many Western women in Saudi Arabia, despite the strict dress code for Saudi women appearing in public.
Obama cut short the final day of his trip to India to make the four-hour stop in Riyadh.
Further underscoring the key role Saudi Arabia has long played in US foreign policy in the Middle East was the extensive delegation that joined Obama for the visit.