Obama to reach out to Saudis with visit

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President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March to mend fences with a Middle East power increasingly at odds with his administration.

Obama will meet with King Abdullah during his second trip to Saudi Arabia as U.S. president — the first since 2009.

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Tensions between Obama and the Saudis have grown as differences have emerged over Egypt, Syria and Iran.

“The Saudis fear that the United States no longer considers them quite so essential to U.S. policy in the Middle East,” said Simon Henderson, director of The Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program.

The Saudis broke with Obama over his administration’s interim nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis’ main rival for power in the Middle East.

They have also expressed disappointment with the U.S. for not intervening more in Syria’s civil war. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia opposed U.S. calls for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, and disagreed with the U.S. decision to withhold some aid after that country’s military overthrew Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi.

Experts say relations may have hit their lowest point since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some of the terrorists behind those attacks were Saudi nationals.

The end of last summer was “the defining moment” for the Saudis, said Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the Saudis were deeply disappointed with Obama’s decision to not launch a military strike against Syria.

Abrams said it will be difficult for Obama and the Saudis to come together, given their differences.

“Unless there are changes on policy differences, there are just deep disagreements. You can paper them over, but they’re not going to be narrowed,” he said.

In announcing the trip, the White House downplayed the policy distance between the two sides.

“Saudi Arabia is a close partner of the United States, and we have a bilateral relationship that is broad and deep and covers a range of areas. And the president very much looks forward to the visit, where all of those areas will be discussed in his meetings. And, you know, whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership,” spokesman Jay Carney said.

Experts said Obama is likely to seek to reassure Abdullah that the two sides have common interests, including on a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project, said the difficulty is that the two countries are not on the same page after the Arab Spring.

“The president is trying to shore up his relationship with the king, which has deteriorated markedly in five years,” said Riedel. “You see that this relationship has had its ups and downs. This is a serious down though, there’s no doubt about it.”

Obama will also use the visit to assess the health of Abdullah, 89, and judge his potential successors. The meetings will likely involve some of Abdullah’s brothers, one of whom would likely succeed him.

The tensions between the U.S. and Saudis are affecting U.S. influence in the Arab world, making the visit a crucial one, Abrams said.

For example, if the U.S. wanted an Arab League resolution defeated or passed, it could once seek help from the Saudis or Mubarak. This has become much more difficult.

“This is part of the reduction of American influence in the Arab world,” Abrams said. “People are just not so willing to listen to us.”

—This story was posted at 12:21 p.m. and updated at 5:32 p.m.