RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to lead a high-profile delegation to offer condolences to the family of the late King Abdullah and meet with his successor.
Obama cut short his visit to India, scrapping plans to visit the Taj Mahal on Tuesday, to pay his respects to the late Saudi monarch, underscoring the importance of Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is ending a week-long trip overseas, joined the president in Riyadh. Lawmakers traveling with Kerry included Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.).
Several officials from previous administrations also were aboard, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice.
“I believe it is important that we demonstrate to the Saudis the importance that they represent to us,” Baker told journalists. “This is an extraordinarily critical and sensitive time in the Middle East when everything seems to be falling apart.”
Salman walked up an embroidered red carpet to greet Obama. As the president and first lady walked down the stairs, a band began to play.
Saudi Arabia is part of the coalition fighting Islamist militants who want to create an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq. A son of Salman’s, Prince Khaled bin Salman, is a pilot who was photographed last year in the cockpit of his Tornado jet after conducting airstrikes against extremist positions in Syria.
Saudi Arabia is grappling with the rise of Islamist extremism and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the collapse of the government in neighboring Yemen. The Saudis are a crucial part of the international coalition battling the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State, and they have sent warplanes to attack the group in Iraq and Syria.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama made the decision to go to Riyadh principally “to mark this transition in leadership and to pay respects to the family and to the people of Saudi Arabia.”
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Obama met with Salman for a little over an hour. The men discussed common efforts against terrorism, including the effort to counter the Islamic State, returning stability to Yemen, supporting partners in the region, and Iran.
Salman didn’t comment on the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations but said he doesn’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
The issue of human rights came up, with Obama underscoring that people “need an outlet” and that civil society is “an important antidote to the extremism we’ve seen take root.” The men did not discuss specific cases, including that of blogger Raif Badawi, whose criticism of Saudi religious leaders caused him to be sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.
Saudi authorities carried out one round of flogging, but have postponed further lashings, citing health concerns.
“I think it will certainly be the case that human rights will be on the agenda with Saudi Arabia going forward and we raise these types of individual cases with Saudi Arabia on a regular basis,” Rhodes said.
Vice President Biden was originally scheduled to lead the U.S. delegation, but the White House changed the schedule last weekend so Obama could leave India earlier to be in Riyadh.