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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Barack Obama and a large American delegation visiting Saudi Arabia on Tuesday were greeted with calls for a revamped relationship between the important allies.
The whistle-stop tour allowed the Americans to pay their respects to the family of the recently deceased King Abdullah and meet with new King Salman. The visit, however, should not be seen as a condolence visit but instead as a chance to start again, said Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of AlArab News Channel and a prominent commentator.
"The Saudis, the Americans, need a new start in the Middle East because whatever policies we have can be described as failed policies,” Khashoggi said. Chief among the concerns, he added, is ISIS, which has overtaken swathes of Syria and Iraq.
While the U.S.-backed coalition is supporting targeted strikes on ISIS, Saudi critics have accused the U.S. administration of being too hesitant to arm or become more directly involved in the fight against the extremists. Ongoing turmoil in Egypt and chaos in neighboring Yemen are also concerns, Khashoggi said.
CIA Director John Brennan and Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, joined in meetings with the Saudis, indicating that the focus of the gatherings has been military and intelligence cooperation. Unmentioned — in public at least — were U.S. concerns about the funding for extremists that has allegedly flowed from the kingdom and about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
The United States’ ongoing nuclear talks with Iran — Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy in the region — have also made some regular Saudis questions where Washington’s allegiances really lie.
"For years, we have been told that Iran is the bad guy," said Saeed Al Qahtani, a 33-year-old security guard from the Saudi capital of Riyadh. "Now, the U.S. expects us to forget all of that and be friends with them just because that’s what they have decided in their political game."
A cartoon is making the rounds on social media in Saudi Arabia that illustrates what some people believe is happening: The drawing shows a grinning Obama hugging Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Both leaders raise their fingers in a gesture of a peace sign as doves fly in the distance.
"Obama's trying his best to patch things up," said Hind Al Sammari, a 33-year-old Riyadh-based filmmaker. "I'm not as happy about him coming as I would have been in the past, but the relationship is important to preserve."