President Barack Obama was scheduled to have dinner with a key Middle East ally on Friday in a planned bilateral meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
The event – taking place at the king’s desert camp, a 30-minute helicopter ride from Riyadh – was the final stop in a jam-packed five-day itinerary that has already taken the president around Europe.
On Thursday, Obama met Pope Francis for the first time, having a 52-minute private audience with the pontiff at the Vatican.
The president was expected to land in Saudi Arabia from Rome at about 5 p.m. local time (10 a.m. ET) and sit down to dinner at about 8 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET).
Obama is expected to reassure Arab allies that, despite troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, greater energy independence back home and nuclear talks with predominantly Persian Iran, the United States is not abandoning the Arab world.
White House officials and Mideast experts say the Saudi royal family's main concern is Iran’s nuclear program and its backing of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.
There are also tensions in the region between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a small but oil-rich Gulf state.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of arming militant Islamic fighters in the Syrian conflict.
Friday's talks also come in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia's refusal to grant a visa to the Washington bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post who had sought to cover Obama's trip, the AP reported.
- Alastair Jamieson
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published March 28 2014, 3:32 AM