Obama Aims To Soothe Strained Relations In Saudi Arabia

President Obama met Friday with the king of Saudi Arabia. There's considerable friction in the U.S.-Saudi relationship at the moment, with key differences over Syria and Iran.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama is in Riyadh today, emphasizing the strong relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. He also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the crisis in Ukraine. And the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has resigned following the bridge scandal there.

It's Friday and time for the week in politics. In a moment we'll hear from our regulator commentators about all of these topics. And let's start with NPR's Scott Horsley, who is covering the president's meetings today with the Saudi King Abdullah.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For decades, the United States has been Saudi Arabia's chief protector, keeping shipping lanes open for the export of Saudi oil and keeping a watchful eye on the energy-rich kingdom itself.

SIMON HENDERSON: The Saudis see the United States as the ultimate security blanket.

HORSLEY: Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says when Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait almost a quarter century ago, it took only about a day for the first American F-15s to swoop onto Saudi soil.

HENDERSON: That sort of response is what Saudi Arabia would like to have from the United States today, but frankly it doesn't think it's going to get it.

HORSLEY: Indeed, having finally ended the long war in Iraq, President Obama is eager to avoid any new military involvement in the Middle East. Last year he opted not to launch a military strike on Syria despite that country's use of chemical weapons. Saudi leaders are also watching with alarm as the U.S. opens negotiations with their arch nemesis, Iran, over that countries nuclear program.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who directs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says mutual opposition to Iran has long been a source of common ground between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, so any sign of a thaw is worrisome for the Saudis.

TAMARA COFMAN WITTES: Saudi Arabia and the United States agree that Iranian behavior in the region is destabilizing and is of great concern, but they might not agree on exactly what the priority is to address about Iranian behavior.

HORSLEY: Wittes says while the U.S. is focused on Iran's nuclear program, the Saudis are mostly concerned about Iranian interference in Syria and elsewhere around the region. Deputy White House National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes tried to bridge that gap in a briefing today for reporters aboard Air Force One.

BEN RHODES: We'll be making clear that even as we are pursuing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, our concern about other Iranian behavior in the region, those concerns remain constant.

HORSLEY: Whatever the president's concerns, Henderson says many Americans have grown wary of playing any big role in the Middle East. That isolationism is fueled in part by the sense that, thanks to a boom in domestic oil production, we're no longer so dependent on imports from Saudi Arabia.

HENDERSON: The popular view is emerging that why should we care about what's going on in the Middle East, we don't need them any longer.

HORSLEY: Henderson suggests that view is short-sighted and Wittes agrees, saying Saudi supplies still have a powerful influence on worldwide energy prices and hence the global economy.

WITTES: Even though the United States, for example, may not import much energy from the Gulf, it still cares about the global price and Saudi Arabia is still the globe's swing producer of oil.

HORSLEY: Wittes days despite their current frictions, the two countries have always found a way to work together in the past and she's confident they will again. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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