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Mourning In Riyadh: Obama Visits New Saudi King To Offer Condolences


Today President Obama is meeting a new ruler of an old ally. He's paying respects after the death of Saudi King Abdullah, and he's meeting King Salman, Abdullah's half-brother who is 79. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president, joins us from Riyadh, and, Scott, what have you been seeing there?


Steve, we just arrived in Riyadh a short time ago. The president and Mrs. Obama stepped off of Air Force One into a blazing sun. There was a full-on arrival ceremony at the airport with a military band and a canopy that the president and King Salman stepped under and lots of handshaking there with the members of the Saudi delegation. Then we took a very fast drive through the capital and arrived at a palace where an extended U.S. and Saudi delegation is now meeting.

INSKEEP: And I'm thinking, Scott, that this is more significant than the ordinary ceremonial meeting between heads of state because of the way the Saudi-U.S. alliance has been from the very beginning, when there was a meeting between the Saudi king in 1945 and President Franklin Roosevelt and the way that presidents since then have sent their best friends or good friends to be ambassadors to the Saudis. This is a very personal relationship.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right, and you could just underscore that by the president's own presence here. Initially, the White House said Vice President Biden would lead the U.S. delegation. But when it became clear that President Obama was going to be in the neighborhood with his trip to India, he decided he would take on that role. The White House is stressing that this is largely an opportunity for the president and first lady to pay their respects to the royal family and to meet the new king, not really a substantive sit down. But surely there will be some time for the president and King Salman to talk about some joint concerns, notably the ongoing fight against the Islamic State extremists and the volatile situation in Saudi Arabia's next-door neighbor, Yemen.

INSKEEP: Two different situations there, both involving extremist groups of different kinds. Is there a sense, Scott Horsley, that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are on the same page with those situations?

HORSLEY: Yes, I think that's right. In fact, of course Saudi Air Force pilots have been flying alongside American pilots in the fight against the Islamic State extremists, which is a pretty active role for Saudi Arabia. They're usually playing a more behind-the-scenes role. And certainly they're equally concerned about the situation in their southern neighbor, where the pro-American government has resigned under pressure. The White House insists that the battle against the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group that's headquartered in Yemen and which has taken responsibility for the attacks in Paris earlier this month, that fight they say will go on even though the U.S.-backed government in Yemen has been forced from power.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of a few issues on which the two countries might be more at odds, though, Scott Horsley. The president just came from India where he was able to give a speech on women's rights and on religious freedom. I'm trusting that such subjects do not come up quite so easily in Saudi Arabia.

HORSLEY: It's sort of an awkward juxtaposition, and I assume that the White House didn't plan to be in Riyadh hours after giving that speech when the language was crafted. It was a very powerful speech, given to an auditorium full of mostly young people from India. And the president said, in our global economy a country cannot succeed while ignoring the talents of half its population. He talked about women's rights and religious pluralism as two values that even if they haven't always lived up to them perfectly, the U.S. and India share - they're written into the founding documents of both countries. And obviously neither of those is a quality that's often assigned to Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks very much as always.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president in Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.