Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Obama Visits Saudi Arabia Amid Tensions With Gulf Leaders


Here's the backdrop for President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia tomorrow. U.S.-Saudi relations are as rocky as they've been in years. At the same time, they're about as unbreakable as ever. It's a relationship that is long and complicated and getting more so. The president will be meeting with Saudi King Salman and will stay to meet other leaders from Arab Gulf countries on Thursday.

NPR's Deborah Amos covers Saudi Arabia and is on the line now to talk about what the two countries seek from each other. And Deb, before we get to what the friction is bout, tell us what the U.S., what President Obama would be working on with the Saudis.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, you know, despite those frictions, the U.S. and the Saudi leadership still think that they need each other on a strategy to fight the Islamic State, on a way to end two brutal wars in the region - Syria and Yemen. And the Saudis dependent U.S. arms sales to ensure their security.

And the Kingdom is still a major oil supplier to the U.S. It's about a million barrels a day. But there's no doubt that there's a gap in views. Washington and Riyadh have drifted apart, and the Saudis and other Gulf countries in the region - they're pursuing their own agendas by other means. The difference is in the details on Iran, on Syria and on ISIS.

SIEGEL: So what are their complaints with each other?

AMOS: Well, this visit comes after the president trash talked the Saudis publicly in an interview in The Atlantic magazine. He called them free riders not doing enough to fight ISIS, and he said Saudi Arabia would have to learn to share the region with Iran. And that's the Saudis chief rival, and that did not go down well in Riyadh.

But at the same time, Washington and Riyadh do work together. Here is one example. The Saudis recently agreed to take nine Guantanamo detainees. These are nine Yemenis who have family ties in Saudi Arabia. So that gets the president closer to his goal of closing that facility.

SIEGEL: Now, Saudi Arabia has an old king, King Salman. He's believed to be in his 80s, but he's only been in office a little over a year. How has he defined his reign?

AMOS: Well, that's not old by Saudi standards. But here's the thing. He has a young, ambitious son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Now, the kingdom usually changes at a snail's pace, but this guy has moved it to warp speed. And he has to because the country is facing huge problems.

The region's on fire. There's been a dramatic drop in oil prices, so he's talking about overhauling the economy. There's plans for taxing Saudi citizens for the first time. But here's what also happens. There are harsh new measures to squash any dissent.

And remember earlier this year, there was international outrage over the execution of a Saudi cleric. He was a leader in Saudi Arabia's minority Shiite sect. So the Obama administration has publicly criticized the Kingdom over human rights. That's new, and it's another source of tension.

SIEGEL: Now, there has been a tension lately, including a recent story on "60 Minutes," on calls for the U.S. to open 28 pages of a 9/11 congressional report that supposedly deals with Saudi Arabia. We'll be hearing more about this in a moment from a 9/11 survivor. Any idea if that is on the agenda for the Obama visit?

AMOS: Robert, this all goes back to the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. And there's lingering questions about links or support from Saudi officials. Do the 28 pages give any answers? Well, it remains classified, and that has been the position of two administrations. It's not clear if it's on the agenda. It's an issue that remains part of this complicated relationship. For the Saudis, this is Obama's farewell visit. They're already looking ahead to the next administration and hoping, as they see it, for a better partner.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.