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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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US Tries to Mend Ties With Saudi Arabia

Apr. 22, 2016

US President Barack Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the country's leader, and to attend a summit of Gulf countries.

It was an apparent attempt to improve relations with the regional power.

Obama has struggled to end various conflicts in the Middle East. He still faces major problems as his 8-year presidency nears its end.

Ties between the US and Saudi Arabia have been strained since the US agreed to a nuclear deal with Iran last year.

President Obama arrived in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, on Wednesday.

He was given an icy reception -- senior members of the Saudi royal family, including King Salman bin Abdulaziz, did not attend his welcome ceremony.

Obama met with King Salman in Riyadh later that day. White House officials say the 2 leaders agreed on the importance of bilateral ties. They also discussed cooperation in the campaign against the Islamic State militant group, as well as the cessation of hostilities in Syria and Yemen.

Obama also attended a summit of the 6-nation Gulf Cooperation Council on Thursday.

"We remain united in our fight to destroy ISIL, or Daesh, which is a threat to all of us," he said at the summit.

The officials agreed to keep fighting the militants. They also decided to strengthen missile defenses, and to conduct joint maritime drills -- apparently to counter potential threats from Iran.

After the meeting, Obama said the US will deter and confront aggression against its allies. But he also acknowledged disagreements with them.

"Probably the biggest area where there's been tactical differences, has been with respect to Iran," Obama said at a news conference.

He stressed the importance of dialogue between the Sunni Gulf states and Shiite Iran to reduce sectarian tensions.


NHK World's Dubai bureau chief Hideki Nakayama joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio from Riyadh.

Beppu: Hideki, how was the mood of the people and the government of Saudi Arabia?

Nakayama: It was Obama's fourth visit to Saudi Arabia -- the most by any US President. The public welcomed him, but the Saudi government took a different stance. Gulf state leaders were greeted by King Salman bin Abdulaziz as they arrived for the summit. But Obama was greeted by the governor of Riyadh. And the opening of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council summit is usually broadcast live by a state-run news channel. But this year, it wasn't.

Beppu: Do you think that it's become more difficult for Obama to mend ties with his Arab allies?

Nakayama: Yes, I think so. Obama met leaders of the Gulf nations in another summit last year. But the situation is completely different this time, as Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in January. Obama tried to boost relations with Saudi Arabia by pledging continued cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State group, a common enemy. But progress has been difficult, as every regional issue -- including extremist groups and the war in Syria -- involves Saudi Arabia's largest rival, Iran.

Beppu: How difficult is it for Saudi Arabia to accept the new reality of rapprochement between the US and Iran?

Nakayama: Saudi Arabia was a close ally and a supplier of crude oil to the US. It considered America's move to improve ties with Iran a betrayal. Obama tried to reassure the Saudis. He said his country will use all elements of its power to secure its core interests in the region and to deter and confront aggression against its allies.

But Saudi Arabia wants the US to express this not just by words, but through action. The country announced in December the formation of a 34-member Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism. It's sending a message to the US to exert stronger leadership over Iran -- otherwise, countries in the region will have to fend for themselves.

The US has worked to prevent regional conflicts from expanding after the end of the war in Iraq. Gulf nations are concerned about who could fill that role if the US were to withdraw from the Middle East. The region could become increasingly unstable, depending on the course of events, including the policies of the next US administration.


Koichiro Tanaka, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: Hearing what we just heard from Riyadh, it's the first meeting since last year's historic nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers, so wasn't it difficult from the very beginning anyway that Obama can mend ties with his Gulf Arab allies?

Tanaka: Well I think President Obama didn't consider that this would be an opportunity that he could mend everything that had been tarnished between the countries. I believe he acted in a way that he believes in, and he didn't try that hard to soothe the feelings of the Arab allies. I believe that he just acted in a normal way.


Obama's Triumphs and Setbacks in the Middle East

The Obama administration's record in the Middle East over the past 7 years includes a number of missteps.

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," Obama said during a visit to Egypt in June 2009.

In his first year in office, he showed his willingness to explore ways to establish friendships with Muslim countries.

Two years later, Obama was finally able to pull all US troops out of Iraq and declare an end to the war.

"As your commander in chief, I'm proud to finally say these two words: Welcome home! Welcome home! Welcome home!" Obama said in December 2011, during a speech to military service members in North Carolina.

But in fact that was just the beginning of new challenges for Obama in the Middle East.

After the withdrawal of US troops, the security situation in Iraq worsened due to sectarian rivalries. Iraqi forces and police were unable to maintain order.

Then a development in neighboring Syria added to Obama's problems. Fighting between President Bashar al-Assad's troops and anti-government forces escalated into a civil war.

It was feared that Assad might turn to chemical weapons to overcome his opponents. Obama warned the Assad regime not to take that step.

"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said in August 2012.

Soon, however, reports began to emerge that such weapons were being used on the Syrian people.

The US investigated, and believed it found evidence of chemical warfare. Obama responded by saying military action should be taken against Assad. At the last minute, however, he agreed to let Congress decide.

In the end, nothing was done. Obama appeared to back down.

"I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solution," he said.

And this prompted the Republican Party to accuse him of being weak-kneed.

At the same time, Islamic State militants were extending their control, mainly in Syria and Iraq. In June 2014, the militant group captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

Obama was finally prompted to launch targeted airstrikes in Iraq. About a month later, he did the same against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Obama had given himself credit for ending the Iraq War, which was started by the Bush administration. But, ironically, he gave the go-ahead for fresh military campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

The Obama administration struggled to find its footing diplomatically. But finally there came a chance to make a historic achievement. The US and other world powers reached a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

"This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change," Obama said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the deal "the start of a new era."

The US was able to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran for the time being. But the deal angered US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Arab kingdom had urged the U.S. over and over to take military action against the Assad regime. It had also opposed the U.S. deal with Iran on its nuclear development program. As a result, the rift between the 2 countries has widened.


Beppu: Well, the rift widens because they're 2 parties. Why do you think that Saudi Arabia couldn't read how Obama will react to the new reality in the Middle East?

Tanaka: Traditionally, for the last 3 decades or so, the Saudis considered that they had the ears of the American presidents. But this was not the case with President Obama. And president Obama does not actually believe what he had been hearing in the past by maybe Saudi Arabia or Israel, regarding the reality of the Middle East. And I think he started to think on his own, what should be done in the best interests of the United States. So I think this is the sort of glitch that happened in the very early stages of his administration.

Beppu: Well it is understandable that Obama did withdraw from Iraq. That was basically his biggest presidential campaign promise. And it is understandable that he would say that the chaos in the Middle East was created by his previous administration. But I feel that there is a discrepancy here when I talk with my Arab colleagues, for example. From the Arab viewpoint, they say that it was America that invaded Iraq and it is the same America that is not engaging in this current situation. So they do feel that there is something that America should do now. How can we understand this discrepancy, if I may say?

Tanaka: I think that what your Arab friends are saying is quite true. And I believe that United States, at least President Obama himself would understand quite correctly that it is not about him or his presidency, it's more about the United States' credibility that is in jeopardy. So he has tried to mend the issues that have been already spread in front of him. In some, he might have succeeded. Some are still there.

A problem here is the lapse of time. Ever since the 2003 Iraq invasion by the United States, the Arab allies in the area started to develop their own ideas on security, on how to maintain security, and how to conduct their foreign policy. And that was also aggravated by the events in 2011 when the so-called Arab Spring movement happened, and that the United States didn't step in to salvage Hosni Mubarak's administration in Egypt.

So these kinds of developments over the past decade or so have always been there for the Arab leaders to consider that they have to make their own choice, and they have to act on their own. So now the United States has to deal with the reality that they are maybe not the dominant power in the entire international community. But still, they are the largest military force. But at the same time, the Arab states are also considering that they can do what they want to do.

Beppu: The presidency of President Obama is anyway going to end and a new administration will come in place in the United States quite soon. What do you think the new administration should do when it deals with the Middle East? And on the other hand, how should the Arab world see this new administration?

Tanaka: Well both parties have to understand that this is not the kind of relationship that they can expect from now on. The Arabs have their own way of thinking and their own way of dealing with security issues. On the other hand, the United States now does consider that its hands are quite tied with so many issues here and there, not only about the Middle East but also here in Asia and other parts of the world. They can no longer be the same power that they used to be. So both parties have to understand the reality and they have to build a new relationship starting from that point.