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Thursday, May 28, 2009

U.S. concerned as chill sets in on ties with Saudis

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are worried by what they described as a chill in relations with Saudi Arabia.   

The officials said the Saudis have been dismayed by President Barack Obama's decision to seek a reconciliation with Iran. They said Saudi leaders have sent a series of warnings that this would directly harm U.S. allies in the Gulf.

"The Saudis are beginning to back away from us and consider other strategic alliances," an official said.

Obama plans to visit Saudi Arabia on June 3 during his three-day trip to Egypt, Germany and France, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said the president added Riyad to his itinerary amid warnings that Saudi leaders were becoming increasingly frustrated with the U.S. policy of reconciliation with Iran.

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The Saudi royal family was not assuaged by the visit of Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May, officials said. They said Gates, despite his promises of additional U.S. weapons and training, was treated cooly by Abdullah and his aides.

"The president believes it's an important opportunity to discuss important business, like Middle East peace, but it's not born out of anything specific," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

In Riyad, Gibbs said, Obama would discuss U.S. policy toward Iran and particularly its nuclear program. The spokesman said the president would also seek Saudi support for U.S. efforts to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

But officials said the surprise Saudi visit stemmed from the cancellation of a summit between Egypt and the United States in late May. They said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, citing the death of his grandson, decided to cancel his trip to Washington in coordination with Saudi King Abdullah.

"There are a few Arab states who are very anxious over our policy toward Iran and have dismissed U.S. promises to compensate by additional weapons and an accelerated Israeli-Palestinian peace process," the official said.

Officials said Obama was persuaded to visit Riyad before his scheduled address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4 and personally assure Abdullah that Saudi interests would not be harmed under any U.S. reconciliation with Teheran. They cited Saudi influence in the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as the kingdom's role as the world's leading supplier of crude oil and weapons importer.

"The Saudis have a way of speaking volumes through their silence," another official said. "There is clearly a need to clear the air."

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