President Barack Obama met Thursday with top officials from six Arab nations to discuss regional security issues in the Persian Gulf including the fight against the Islamic State terror group.
The meetings in Riyadh are meant to build on a similar summit convened last year at Camp David, the American president’s Maryland retreat. They reflect an effort by the White House to reassure and coordinate with important but wary Mideast allies that harbor serious doubts about Obama’s outreach to Iran and U.S. policy toward the grinding civil war in Syria.
Obama and officials from the U.S.-allied countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council opened up talks Thursday morning by posing for a group photo. The leaders, meeting around a circular table in an ornate meeting room in the Diriyah Palace, made polite conversation and smiled for cameras, but offered no remarks.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and CIA Director John Brennan also attended the meeting.
The summit follows bilateral talks that Obama held with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday shortly after arriving in the kingdom. Besides Saudi Arabia, the GCC includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
The White House has said the summit meeting will include three sessions. One is aimed at fostering regional stability and another at counterterrorism efforts including efforts to defeat al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorists. A third session will focus on Iran, which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states see as a destabilizing rival in the region.
Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other Gulf countries share the U.S. view that IS terrorists pose a threat, and have joined the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the group. But they want the U.S. to do more to attempt to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.
The Gulf states are also deeply skeptical of Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Shiite powerhouse Iran, and fear that last year’s nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic will lead to a rebalancing of regional stances at their expense.
Several of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states view Tehran’s backing of Shiite militias in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq as the main driver of sectarianism and instability in the region.
Disputes over Iran were a major part of Obama’s talks with Saudi King Salman on Wednesday. The president spent two hours with the king and top Saudi officials amid strains in the relationship.
Obama also held direct talks Wednesday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. U.S. military aircraft are based in the Emirates, the second largest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia, and its Jebel Ali port in Dubai frequently hosts visiting Navy warships.
Thursday’s talks are likely to touch on fighting in neighboring Yemen. A U.N.-brokered cease-fire that started earlier this month has been repeatedly breached — by the Saudi-led coalition fighting on the side of Yemen’s internationally recognized government and by the Shiite rebels and their allies.
The Saudi effort has sought to drive the Shiite rebels from the capital and other parts of the deeply impoverished country. The U.S. is not carrying out air strikes in that campaign but has provided refueling and other logistical help.
Following his meetings with Gulf leaders, Obama planned to depart Saudi Arabia late Thursday for Britain and Germany, the final two stops on his trip.