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Arming Syria rebels top topic as Obama, Saudi king meet

US President Barack Obama holds talks with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, the monarch's desert camp 60 miles (35 miles) northeast of Riyadh, on March 28, 2014
US President Barack Obama holds talks with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khurayim, the monarch's desert camp 60 miles (35 miles) northeast of Riyadh, on March 28, 2014

US President Barack Obama was holding talks with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh Friday on arming Syria's moderate opposition, as the long-time allies seek to bridge their differences over Iran and Syria.

Obama arrived from Italy for an evening meeting with the monarch on a royal estate outside Riyadh.

Discussions would focus on ways to "empower" Syria's moderate opposition, including militarily, a senior White House official said.

"That will definitely be one of the main topics of conversation is how do we best empower the moderate opposition inside of Syria politically, militarily as a counterweight to (President Bashar) Assad," deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama on board Air Force One.

Rhodes said US-Saudi ties have been improving thanks to cooperation over ways to support Syria's opposition.

"Our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall (autumn) when we had some tactical differences about our Syria policy," said Rhodes.

Saudi Arabia is disappointed over Obama's 11th-hour decision last year not to take military action against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons attacks.

US President Barack Obama (C-L) is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) upon his arrival at Rawdat Khurayim on March 28, 2014
US President Barack Obama (C-L) is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) upon his arrival at Rawdat Khurayim on March 28, 2014

It also has strong reservations about efforts by Washington and other major world powers to negotiate a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme.

Saudi analyst Abdel Aziz al-Sagr, who heads the Gulf Research Centre, said Saudi-US relations are "tense due to Washington's stances" on the Middle East, especially Iran.

The recent rapprochement between Tehran and Washington "must not take place at the expense of relations with Riyadh," Sagr told AFP.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, long wary of Shiite Iran's regional ambitions, views a November deal between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.

The interim agreement curbs Iran's controversial nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief, and is aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.

Analyst Khaled al-Dakhil spoke of "major differences" with Washington, adding that Obama will focus on easing "Saudi fears on Iran and on regional security".

Saudi Arabia, the largest power in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, fears that a possible US withdrawal from the Middle East and a diplomatic overture towards Iran would further feed Tehran's regional ambitions.

Iranian-Saudi rivalry crystallised with the Syrian conflict: Tehran backs President Bashar al-Assad's regime, while several GCC states support the rebellion.

- 'Clearing the air' -

Obama's stances towards events reshaping the region "have strained (Saudi-US) relations but without causing a complete break," said Anwar Eshki, head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies.

US security and energy specialist professor Paul Sullivan said Obama meeting King Abdullah could "help clear the air on some misunderstandings".

US President Barack Obama (C) is welcomed by Prince Khaled Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz, Emir of Riyadh (R) upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 28, 2014
US President Barack Obama (C) is welcomed by Prince Khaled Bin Bandar Bin Abdul Aziz, Emir of Riyadh (R) upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 28, 2014

"However, I would be quite surprised if there were any major policy changes during this visit. This is also partly a reassurance visit," he added.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has said that "whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership".

The US-Saudi relationship dates to the end of World War II and was founded on an agreement for Washington to defend the Gulf state in exchange for oil contracts.

OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia is the world's top exporter of oil.

Obama and the king are also expected to discuss deadlocked US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

They will also discuss Egypt, another bone of contention since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, who was a staunch US and Saudi ally.

The kingdom was dismayed by the partial freezing of US aid to Egypt after the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July -- a move hailed by Riyadh.

On Thursday, Egypt's Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi resigned as defence minister after announcing he would stand for president.

Meanwhile, dozens of US lawmakers have urged Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia's "systematic human rights violations," including efforts by women activists to challenge its ban on female drivers.

And rights group Amnesty International said Obama "must break the US administration's silence on Saudi Arabia's human rights record by taking a strong public stand".