Obama to visit Saudi Arabia in late March

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WASHINGTON -- The White House announced Monday that President Barack Obama will travel next month to Saudi Arabia, where he will hear from an ally anxious about developments that have transformed the Middle East and strained the kingdom's relations with the United States.

Mr. Obama's visit will be his first to Saudi Arabia since a series of popular uprisings across the Middle East -- known collectively as the Arab Spring -- overturned several autocratic governments. Some of those revolutions have had the Obama administration's blessing.

Mr. Obama's position, particularly his eventual support for the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, shook the Saudi royal family and raised concerns that backing from the United States, despite its reliance on Saudi oil, could not be counted on. The relationship has since deteriorated over the issue of Syria's civil war, in which Saudi Arabia is arming rebel groups seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster, and over Iran's nuclear program.

"Saudi Arabia is a close partner of the United States, and we have a bilateral relationship that is broad and deep and covers a range of areas," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday at his daily briefing. "And the president very much looks forward to the visit, where all of those areas will be discussed in his meetings."

The visit, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, will mark Mr. Obama's second to the kingdom. He stopped briefly in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, on the eve of his June 2009 speech in Egypt, in which he asked for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world.

Like Israeli leaders, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and his advisers fear that Mr. Obama is moving too quickly to end some sanctions against Iran in return for a suspension of its uranium-enrichment program and a partial reduction of its uranium stockpile. Saudi Arabia, among the most powerful Sunni Muslim nations, is in a bitter contest with Shiite Muslim Iran for regional influence.

"Whatever differences we may have do not alter the fact that this is a very important and close partnership," Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Obama added the Saudi stop to the end of a planned trip to Europe during the last week in March. He is to visit the Netherlands for the third Nuclear Security Summit, followed by his first trip to Brussels, the seat of the European Union, for a summit meeting.

Mr. Obama will then travel to Vatican City for a meeting with Pope Francis, in which they plan to discuss the issue of income inequality.

From the seat of Catholicism, Mr. Obama will head to the "place where Islam began," as he called Saudi Arabia in his 2009 visit.


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