* Kerry praises Saudis
* Ties strained over Iran, Syria and Palestinians
* Saudis seek changes in U.S. policy
By Lesley Wroughton and Angus McDowall
RIYADH, Nov 4 Secretary of State John Kerry met
King Abdullah on Monday and praised the U.S. alliance with Saudi
Arabia as strategic and enduring, but strains in the nearly
70-year-old relationship were apparent over Syria and other
Kerry visited the Gulf oil power on a mission to soothe
disagreements that also extend to U.S. policy on Iran, Egypt and
the Palestinian issue, but despite a public show of friendship,
big differences remained.
The visit is the first since Saudi anger boiled over at the
U.S. decision not to bomb Syria in the wake of a chemical
weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus in August. A senior
prince said at that time that Riyadh was contemplating a "major
shift" away from Washington.
Saudi concerns are also partly founded on a fear that
President Barack Obama's moves to reduce tensions with Iran will
give the kingdom's main regional adversary an opportunity to
extend its influence in Arab countries.
In comments that may go towards reassuring the Saudis that
the U.S. shares its concerns, Kerry reiterated that Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad must stand down, and that Washington
will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.
He said he had offered Saudi leaders assurances that the
United States would do nothing in talks with Iran to alter,
upset, or get in the way of the relationship with Riyadh, and
there would be "no surprises" for the kingdom.
However, while both Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince
Saud al-Faisal dismissed recent disagreements as being over
tactics rather than ultimate goals, both repeated positions that
reflect a wide rift on how they see the Middle East.
Riyadh views Syria's war as a critical contest for regional
supremacy between a Shi'ite coalition backed by Iran and a
pro-Western Sunni alliance of Gulf countries, Turkey and Egypt.
It has lobbied Washington for more than a year to take a
more active role in the conflict, either with air strikes and
the imposition of a no-fly zone, or by training and arming the
But the U.S. has stepped back from those options, unwilling
to be drawn into a messy civil war and worried that any aid it
gives rebels may end up in the hands of Islamist militants.
Speaking alongside Prince Saud, Kerry said there could be no
military solution to Syria's problems and that the U.S. had
neither "the legal authority nor desire" to intervene.
He added that although Washington would continue to support
moderate elements in the opposition, it was worried about
Islamist forces growing in strength.
SYRIA PEACE TALKS
Washington is pushing the Saudis to participate in the
Geneva 2 Syria peace talks, and Kerry described a negotiated
settlement as "the best way to end the bloodshed, respond to the
humanitarian crisis in Syria, to counter the violent extremist
But while Prince Saud said he understood the importance of
talks, he repeated Riyadh's position that they could not be
allowed to continue indefinitely while Assad remained in power.
Kerry also said the U.S. would continue to pursue the
current track of negotiations on Middle East peace, and
Washington would support economic transformation in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia is angry that the U.S. has not pushed Israel
hard enough to stop settlement construction and that it did not
back Egypt's military after it ousted a Muslim Brotherhood
government in July.
Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee
in Saudi Arabia's appointed quasi-parliament, the advisory
Shoura Council, hoped Kerry would help to mend fences.
"I think he came to make a change. There are a lot of
problems (and) misunderstanding between the two countries. But
they have been our allies for 70 years," he told Reuters,
emphasising he was speaking in a personal capacity.
"Gulf states want to know what America means to do in going
further with relations with the Iranians, which may be at the
cost of Gulf states."
"The Saudis' position will not be changed until it's proven
on the ground that the U.S. is changing its policy," said
Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva.
Saudi royals were disappointed by Kerry's efforts to forge
an agreement in August to disarm Syria's chemical arsenal and
avoid U.S. bombing, Alani said.
"They want a clear commitment from the American side that
Geneva 2 (peace talks) will not turn into 3, 4 and 5. And if
this process fails to achieve the objective of removing Assad
from power, the Americans should change their policy from
diplomacy to changing the balance on the ground," he said.
On ending the stalemate with Tehran over its nuclear
programme, a U.S. official said: "We frankly completely agree
with the Saudis about their concerns."
In addition to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Kerry will
make stops in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and
Morocco on his current trip.