7:59am

Sat March 29, 2014
Middle East

Obama Holds Talks With King Abdullah In Saudi Arabia

Originally published on Sat March 29, 2014 11:27 am

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And President Obama is on his way home on Air Force One after a quick trip to Saudi Arabia. The president met with Saudi Arabia's aging monarch, King Abdullah. Last night and today he met with the Saudi woman who won a U.S. State Department Women of Courage Award. We're going to turn now to Ellen Knickmeyer, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She's in Riyad. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: Yeah. It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You know, the Saudis and the U.S. have had so many disagreements publicly in recent years. They thought that the U.S. was wrong not to stand by Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, that the U.S. has been wrong not to arm rebels in Syria, who are trying to replace Bashar al-Assad. Did you see any signs that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have narrowed their differences this week?

KNICKMEYER: You know, that's exactly what the Americans say happened. They say the trip brought the Americans and Saudis closer together. Saudi, the government, the royals don't really share much of their state-level affairs with the public. So, Saudis are still trying to figure out how it went on the Saudi side. But there's not a lot of signs. There was a particularly warm visit. For example, like, none the very top royals met President Obama at the airport to greet him or to see him off. And then like the usual state visit, there was no state dinner. It was a two-hour talk and then Obama left and he flew out today.

SIMON: So, those are considered signs that they didn't get on famously.

KNICKMEYER: Those are early indications that some Saudis think that the government wasn't really all that happy with the way the visit left. But it's going in Saudi Arabia, it kind of takes a couple of weeks for the newspapers and other people who are kind of plugged in to really get some of the better word on how it went with the Saudis.

SIMON: Oil aside, do the two countries have different interests in the region?

KNICKMEYER: Saudi Arabia is particularly worried by the U.S. trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia sees Iran kind of backing groups in Syria and in Lebanon and in Yemen and Iraq. And Saudi has seen itself as increasingly surrounded. And it, you know, Saudis definitely thinks the U.S. understands how deeply concerned it is about regional security and about its own security right now.

SIMON: We understand that there are activists in Saudi Arabia - human rights activists, activists for women's rights, greater women's rights in Saudi Arabia who had wanted President Obama and other U.S. officials to step in and voice their concerns. No indication whatever that happened. Is there disappointment?

KNICKMEYER: There was. Saudi women that I talked after the visit said they didn't really expect Obama to kind of endanger the makeup visit by bringing women's rights up or just human rights up. And they said in that sense the trip met their expectations. Saudi activists say that there is a state crackdown going on, on dissent and free speech since the Arab Spring uprisings. And they say it's kind of a very dark time in the kingdom for them and they think the U.S. is not really doing too much to help them out of it. Just today, some women in Riyad are trying to kind of get up the nerve to go driving, which is forbidden for women here in Saudi Arabia. I know that a woman drove in Jetta today and there were some activists who went to drive in the capital, in Riyad, and they were planning to and they're to get up the nerve to but Saudi Arabia has adopted very tough counterterror laws that makes activists afraid to do too much right now.

SIMON: So, a woman driving, of course, is against the law but this kind of concerted effort to make what amounts to a demonstration of women driving is considered to be - to use a loaded term - dangerous?

KNICKMEYER: Right. The kingdom this year adopted a counterterror law that outlawed basically anything seen as threatening the unity of the kingdom. And since the 2011, with the Arab Spring uprisings, there's been lots of activists who've been jailed or sentenced or they've been forced to leave the country and by fear of being sentenced. And this counterterror law makes pretty much everyone who wants to express an objection to the government afraid that they too could go to prison.

SIMON: Ellen Knickmeyer of the Wall Street Journal in Riyad. Thanks very much for being with us.

KNICKMEYER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.