Obama seeks to repair strained relations with Gulf leaders

US President Barack Obama and Gulf Arab leaders meet in Riyadh at summit aimed at creating joint action on perceived security threats from Iran and DAESH terrorist group and repairing relations with Gulf Arab leaders

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

US President Barack Obama speaks with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan during the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21, 2016.

US President Barack Obama met Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to push for increased efforts against the DAESH terrorist group, despite strains in their ties with Washington.

Making what is likely his final presidential visit to historic American allies, Obama is seeking to overcome recent tensions with Sunni Arab Gulf states rooted in US overtures to their regional rival Iran.

With DAESH suffering a series of recent setbacks in areas under its control in Syria and Iraq, Washington is seeking more help from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to keep up the pressure.

After bilateral talks with Saudi King Salman the day before, Obama posed on Thursday for a summit photo with six leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries before heading into four hours of talks at a royal palace.

Obama met Gulf leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 21, 2016. (AFP)

In a highly unusual move, Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria did not broadcast the start of the meeting, just as it did not show Obama's airport arrival on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states contribute to the US-led coalition that has been carrying out air strikes against DAESH in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014.

But on Wednesday US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter - in Riyadh with Obama - urged them "to do more."

He pointed specifically to Iraq, calling for more support for Baghdad, which is battling political chaos and an economic crisis as well as the extremists.

Sunni support for "multi-sectarian governance and reconstruction" in Shiite-majority Iraq will be critical to ensuring the defeat of DAESH, the Pentagon chief said after meeting Gulf counterparts.

'Big focus' on Syria

In Baghdad earlier this week Carter announced that the United States would send more troops and make Apache attack helicopters available to Iraq as its forces push a renewed fightback against the DAESH terrorist group aimed at eventually retaking the DAESH hub of Mosul.

Analysts said Syria would also be on the table at the summit, with Washington likely pushing Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies to influence the Syrian opposition, which they have long supported, to abide by a ceasefire.

"I think Syria will obviously be a big focus, ensuring that the Saudis focus their diplomatic energies on the ceasefire, perhaps soliciting more Saudi support on refugees. But then also asking the Saudis to do more on the Islamic State [DAESH]," said Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Washington hopes the ceasefire and peace talks in Geneva could help resolve Syria's broader conflict to focus attention on the fight against DAESH and other terrorist groups.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also joined Obama in Riyadh, where he held talks with Saudi Arabia's powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, on April 21, 2016. (AFP)

The full-scale diplomatic offensive follows months of rising tensions between the United States and Gulf Arab nations, who have for decades enjoyed strong security ties with Washington.

Obama's perceived tilt towards their arch-rival Iran has been a particular concern, with Gulf states worried that Tehran will be emboldened to seek a still bigger regional role after the lifting of sanctions under its landmark nuclear deal with major powers led by the United States.

'America has changed'

Prince Turki al Faisal, the kingdom's former intelligence chief, said that Obama's conduct and declarations have made Saudi Arabia realise that the relationship has changed.

"My personal view is that America has changed," he said. 

"How far we can go with our dependence on America? How much can we rely on steadfastness from American leadership? What is it that makes for our joint benefits to come together? These are things that we have to recalibrate," the senior royal said.

He said he did not think the next president should be expected to return to "the yesteryear days when things were different."

Obama adviser Rob Malley said it is important to settle the conflicts in Syria and Yemen not only because of their devastating humanitarian consequences, but because an end to fighting will allow countries involved "to focus more of their activities against ISIL [DAESH] and against Al Qaeda."

Saudi troops walk past armoured personnel carriers at their base in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, September 28, 2015. (Reuters)

A Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention against Iran-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen last year and UN-supported peace talks to the end conflict are due to begin this week in Kuwait.

Salman on Wednesday expressed hope that the talks "would achieve positive progress" despite a delay in the rebel delegation showing up.

Obama is expected to tell the Gulf states that Washington will not ignore "destabilising acts" by Iran, and the president has previously assured them that the US security commitment is "ironclad."

The White House says military cooperation has accelerated with Gulf states worried about the Iranian threat since he hosted Gulf leaders at Camp David last May.