President Obama altered his schedule this week to stop in Saudi Arabia with first lady Michelle Obama on their way back from India.
National security spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters today that “the United States delegation, led by the president, is going to pay respects to the memory of King Abdullah, a longstanding partner of the United States, and also to meet with the new king, King Salman.”
“And I think, principally, I think this is to mark this transition in leadership and to pay respects to the family and to the people of Saudi Arabia. But I’m sure that while we’re there they’ll touch on some of the leading issues where we cooperate very closely with Saudi Arabia,” Rhodes said.
“And clearly, that would include the continued counter-ISIL campaign where the Saudis have been a partner and have joined us in military operations in Syria; of course, also the situation in Yemen, where we have coordinated very closely with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries in trying to support stability inside of Yemen; and other regional issues in which the United States and Saudi Arabia often coordinate.”
Rhodes called the visit “a chance for us to make sure that we’re in good alignment going forward where we have overlapping interests.”
“I think you saw the king send a signal that he’s committed to continuity in terms of Saudi Arabia’s approach to those issues,” he said. “But again, I think we’re well placed to continue cooperation. And frankly, we also have very good relations with Prince Muqrin and Mohammed bin Nayef, two other members of the Royal Family who are a part of the succession plan.”
Politico reported over the weekend that White House aides said pulling together this last-minute trip was different from the Paris no-show because “they knew in advance that the condolence call for King Abdullah would draw global leaders” yet were taken by surprised when dozens of leaders showed up to march against terrorism with French President Francois Hollande.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said today that “there is a precedent of world leaders dying while they’re in office and the president at least making the effort to try to participate in their memorial service.”
Rhodes said it was Obama’s decision to add Saudi Arabia to his schedule.
“I understand the comparison people have drawn to this. But first of all, I think we’ve made clear that we regret that we were unable to send somebody of a more senior level than was represented in Paris,” Rhodes told reporters.
“And at the same time, here I think what you see is it’s a different type of circumstance and that you have a turnover of a government, and you have I think a period of time where different leaders are able to pass through Saudi Arabia to pay their respects and to meet the new King. So there is a difference, although it doesn’t change the fact that we made very clear that we believe it would have been good to send someone of a more senior rank.”