At White House, Obama and Saudi king discuss Guantanamo, Mideast peace process

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By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Broaching a sensitive subject, President Obama assured the visiting king of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday that he remains committed to closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a continuing source of friction between their governments.

A year after a reportedly rocky first meeting in Riyadh, Obama and King Abdullah held a brief, joint appearance before reporters in the Oval Office following lunch. Making ritual affirmations about the close ties between their two countries, the leaders said they discussed recently approved sanctions against Iran as well as the war in Afghanistan.

They also discussed the need for the Middle East peace process to move "forward in a significant and bold way," Obama said.

Fewer than 20 Saudis remain at Guantanamo Bay, but the prison is a symbol of George W. Bush-era detention policies and is unpopular in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia has rebuffed U.S. requests to accept Yemeni prisoners -- who make up the largest population at Guantanamo Bay -- with Saudi officials saying their militant rehabilitation program would not work for citizens of other countries. The Obama administration has halted the repatriation of Yemenis until security in their country improves; it has made one exception to the ban.

With the Middle East peace process at an impasse, officials did not report breaking any new ground ahead of a meeting next Tuesday between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Israeli moves over the last year and a half, including the building of settlements, have been a source of unhappiness for Saudi and other Arab leaders.

"They had pretty high hopes, which have not been fulfilled because of Obama's inability to deliver Israel -- or what they see as reluctance," said Tom Lippman, a Saudi expert at the Middle East Institute.

Still, Abdullah's visit -- the first time Obama had hosted him -- provided both sides a venue to demonstrate the friendship between their countries, a point the king was particularly keen on highlighting. "I would like to say to the friendly American people that the American people are friends of Saudi Arabia and its people, and they are friends of the Arab and Muslim people, and they are also friends of humanity," Abdullah said through an interpreter.

On a day of dueling confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill and news of a busted Russian spy ring, the visit by the Saudi king -- once a guaranteed major event -- hardly caused a ripple. Officials said oil production and exportation, which often dominate such talks, were not central issues; prices are holding steady despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, the threat of terrorism, the issue that overshadowed all else in the U.S.-Saudi relationship after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was not a major topic -- perhaps because now "cooperation on counterterrorism is so good," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.

The White House said Obama and Abdullah did discuss "efforts to prevent violent extremism," what the Bush administration once called "radical Islam."


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