Obama to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss peace, Iran

WASHINGTON Tue May 26, 2009 6:29pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House in Washington for a trip to Nevada, May 26, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House in Washington for a trip to Nevada, May 26, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will meet Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh next week to seek his support over the nuclear standoff with Iran and reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Obama will visit Riyadh on June 3 in a surprise addition to his scheduled three-day trip to Egypt, Germany and France, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, is a staunch U.S. ally in the region and potentially a key player in the drive for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which Obama has declared a top foreign policy priority.

The Obama administration has embraced the 2002 Arab peace initiative, a proposal authored by Saudi Arabia that offered Israel normal ties with all Arab states in return for a full withdrawal from the lands it seized in the 1967 Middle East war, creation of a Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

Gibbs dismissed the idea the Saudi stop was added to persuade Arab states to make conciliatory gestures to Israel.

"The president believes it's an important opportunity to discuss important business, like Middle East peace, but it's not born out of anything specific," he said.

Gibbs last week scotched speculation that Obama would use his much-anticipated speech to Muslims, which he is due to deliver in Egypt on June 4, to unveil a new Middle East peace initiative.

Obama has held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks as part of efforts to jumpstart stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace moves and will meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday.

ANTI-IRAN ALLIANCE

The visit to Saudi Arabia comes as Obama is seeking to build an alliance of moderate Muslim nations to put pressure on Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program, which Washington fears is a cover to build a nuclear bomb.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called in March for Arabs to agree on how to tackle Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for electricity generation.

Obama's administration has been at pains to reassure Saudi Arabia that Washington's efforts to reach out diplomatically to Iran will not affect bilateral relations.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of mainstream Sunni Islam, fears the growing regional power of non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran, which backs Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist factions such as Hamas and has considerable influence in neighboring Iraq.

The United States has raised the idea of sending Yemeni terrorism detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, which Obama has said he will close by next January, to Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh has a program to rehabilitate militants.

Saudi Arabia is among the United States' top 15 trading partners. Last year, two-way trade was $67.3 billion, which equaled about 2 percent of total U.S. exports and imports.

Saudi Arabia exported $54.8 million worth of oil and few other products to the United States in 2008 and imported $12.5 billion of U.S. goods.

(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington and Ulf Laessing in Riyadh; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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