Obama to visit Saudi Arabia in March

US president to visit Riyadh amid strained relations between two countries over war in Syria and Iran nuclear talks.

US-Saudi relations have deteriorated since the start of the Syrian conflict [Reuters]

The White House has said that President Barack Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March to meet with King Abdullah to discuss a range of security issues in the Middle East that have caused some strains in the bilateral relationship, according to Reuters news agency.

The rare visit, which comes at the end of an Obama’s Europe trip, will include discussions about “Gulf and regional security, peace in the Middle East, countering violent extremism, and other issues of prosperity and security,” the White House said in a statement on Monday.

King Abdullah met Secretary of State John Kerry in November and discussed concerns about the unwillingness of the US to intervene in Syria and recent overtures to its arch-rival, Iran.

Saudi Arabia turned down a seat on the United Nations Security Council in October, in a display of anger at the failure of the international community to end the war in Syria.

That month, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief said the kingdom was looking at making a “major shift” in relations with the US.

Fighters to be jailed

Meanwhile, Saudi state media on Monday issued a royal decree saying Saudis who join or endorse groups it classifies as terrorist organisations, whether inside or outside the country, would face prison sentences of between five and 30 years.

It appeared to be another official move to discourage the kingdom’s citizens from travelling to Syria to fight alongside rebels battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious authorities have previously spoken out against Saudi fighters going to Syria, but the Saudi Interior Ministry estimates that about 1,200 Saudis have gone there nonetheless.

Riyadh backs some rebel groups in Syria with money and arms, but is wary of allowing its citizens to go and fight in case they join armed groups that could then target the kingdom’s ruling al-Saud family.

Source: Reuters