President Barack Obama opened a brief trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday with a one-on-one meeting with King Salman in Riyadh. The visit for a Persian Gulf summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained U.S. relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.
Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the small of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for pictures at the start of their two-hour private meeting.
"The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-U.S. summit that\’s taking place tomorrow," Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
King Salman offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president.
"The feeling is mutual between us and the American people," the king said through a translator.
The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain are participating in the regional summit, which the White House said would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and Iran. Talks are also expected to address the Saudi-led military campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and CIA Director John Brennan were among the officials accompanying Obama. Carter, meeting with defense ministers from the Gulf nations Wednesday, pressed them to provide more economic and political support to Iraq in a preview of themes Obama was expected to emphasize.
Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted not by King Salman but by a lower-ranking royal, Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Ahead of Obama\’s arrival, Saudi state television showed the king personally greeting senior officials from other Gulf nations arriving at the King Salman Air Base.
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center, said the Saudi decision not to dispatch a high-level delegation to greet the president was unusual and intended to send a clear message that they have little faith in him.
"He will find a leadership that\’s not ready to believe him," Alani said. "The Saudis had disagreements with previous presidents. Here you have deep distrust that the president won\’t deliver anything."
U.S. officials have expressed hope the latest meeting will build on last year\’s Camp David summit, though they acknowledge differences remain between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Obama\’s recent comment that the Saudis and Iranians should "share the neighborhood" roiled officials in Riyadh.
The Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom — the world\’s biggest oil exporter and the largest buyer of American-made weapons — sees Shiite-led Iran as its main rival. Saudi leaders are concerned that concessions granted to Iran in last year\’s nuclear deal will embolden it to pursue what the Saudis view as aggressive meddling throughout the region.
Salman\’s reign has overseen a more assertive foreign policy, with Saudis venturing into Yemen and pushing the U.S. to take more aggressive moves to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in Syria\’s civil war and in the Yemen conflict, where the U.S. military is providing refueling and other logistical help to the Saudi-led war effort.
Ahead of Obama\’s trip, a group of U.S. senators called on the president to press Saudi Arabia on human rights issues and raise the cases of two imprisoned advocates, blogger Raif Badawi and a man who defended him, rights activist Waleed Abu al-Khair. In early January, Saudi Arabia put 47 people to death including a prominent Shiite cleric in its largest mass execution in years, triggering an angry reaction in Iran.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom\’s defense minister, said ahead of Obama\’s visit that the Gulf and the U.S. must work together to confront challenges including terrorism, instability and what he described as Iranian interference into regional countries\’ affairs.
Obama\’s trip follows an unusually robust string of high-profile U.S. visits to the Gulf states. Vice President Joe Biden last month visited the United Arab Emirates, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month was in nearby Bahrain.
Obama himself traveled to Saudi Arabia only last year shortly after the death of former King Abdullah, Salman\’s predecessor and half-brother.