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On Saudi Arabia Trip Obama Seeks to Quell Tensions

Obama attends summit of Gulf nations in Saudi Arabia 0:24

When President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday he stepped from Air Force One onto a red carpet and greeted the governor of Riyadh and other lower level officials.

It was a different reception than the one President George W. Bush received in 2008 when he was met warmly at the airport by the late King Abdullah and invited to the regent's farm just outside the city.

And while the White House pushed back Wednesday against the notion that the greeting was a snub — King Salman and Obama walked side by side into the ruler's palace — speculation about the reception is fueled by the chilly relationship between the two nations.

Related: Obama in Saudi Arabia: Chilly Reception Likely as Old Allies Face New Pressures

Inside the palace meeting room the two leaders sat next to each other in an ornately decorated setting and exchanged pleasantries through a translator.

"I and the Saudi people are very pleased that you, Mr. President, are visiting us here in the kingdom," Salman said.

9/11 Families Want Secret Report to be Declassified 2:06

"The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality," Obama said. "Not just for this meeting but for hosting the Gulf Cooperation Council/U.S. summit that's taking place tomorrow.

"Thank you Mr. President and the feeling is mutual between us and the American people," Salman replied.

Obama is seeking to ease tensions with an ally that has felt beset by regional unrest and anxiety over American legislative efforts to help victims' families hold the Saudis accountable for the September 11th attacks.

Obama administration officials said the legislation did not come up in the meeting between the president and the king because both leaders are on the same page in disagreeing with the Senate bill.

They also agree that the 28 pages from a 2002 congressional investigation — which those families and some lawmakers believe implicate the Saudis in the 9/11 attacks — should be declassified.

Related: Ahead of Saudi Trip, Obama Wedged in Debate Over 9/11 Report Secrecy

Still, thawing relations with the Saudis won't be an easy task.

A civil war in Yemen has rocked the region as a Saudi-led coalition has fought to support the Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels.

The oil rich nation has vowed to sell off $750 billion in American assets if a legislative push — seen as a move that could help clear the way for suits from the families of victims of the September 11th attacks who assert that the Saudis played a role — is successful. The bipartisan congressional bill would allow Americans to sue foreign countries implicated as responsible for terror attacks in the U.S.

On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has recently tried to block the bill until language is altered, talked about his worries over unintended consequences

"I don't want to create a situation where we pass a statute here that could be used against us later," Graham told reporters.

Image: President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman
President Barack Obama and Saudi Arabia's King Salman walk together to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 20, 2016. Carolyn Kaster / AP

Into this fray enters Obama, whose administration opposes the legislation and has also had a more recently strained relationship with its ally.

The Saudis worry that the Obama administration's has not been supportive.

Such tensions extend back to the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Add to that Syrian President Bashar Assad's violation of the president's red line on chemical weapons. Then there was the Iran nuclear deal.

In a meeting that was described Wednesday by administration officials as "blunt and direct," President Obama was asked about and did not back down from his comments in an article in The Atlantic last month critical of the Saudis — especially the part about saying the Saudi's should share the region and try to create a "cold peace with Iran." On the matter of Iraq, the president urged the Saudis to remain engaged with the Sunni population, especially in Anbar, where business and cultural relationships already exist. He urged the Saudis not to withdraw.

The U.S. is concerned about the need for investment in Iraq to prevent more chaos in areas that have been taken back from ISIS.

Related: Ahead of Saudi Trip, Obama Wedged in Debate Over 9/11 Report Secrecy

The president publicly raised questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the interview with The Atlantic and stressed that while he did not want to throw "our traditional allies overboard," the Saudis need to get along with Iran for the good of the region.

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In January, Iran accused a coalition fighting in Yemen and being led by the Saudis of attacking its embassy. This worsened already-strained tensions between the rival powers.

Related: Iran Blames Saudi Arabia After Jets 'Bomb Embassy' in Yemen

"The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace," Obama said in the interview.

During the meeting with the Saudi king, the president encouraged the Saudis to remain engaged in Syria and Yemen, where Iran also is a player, because there's an opportunity for diplomacy with ceasefires struggling to remain in place.

Related: President Obama, Frustrated With Allies, Calls Out the 'Free Riders'

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke of the tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran 2:21

"We certainly do not agree with everything that Saudi Arabia does, and there are numerous differences between our two countries," he told reporters during the White House press briefing. "But the fact remains that the United States and Saudi Arabia are able to coordinate effectively to counter terrorism, to combat extremists, to degrade and destroy ISIL, and to advance the security interests of both of our countries."

Related: Nine Guantanamo Bay Detainees Transferred to Saudi Arabia: Pentagon

Such cooperation is critically important, Earnest said and pointed to last year's summit at Camp David when the president met with leaders of Gulf nations.

The president's visit, Earnest said, is aimed at "deepening our cooperation and ensuring that as they work together to provide for their own security that the United States can continue to facilitate improved cooperation among them."