President Barack Obama will shorten his trip to India and divert to Saudi Arabia, paying respects after the death of King Abdullah and meeting with the oil-rich nation’s new monarch, the White House said Saturday.
The scheduling shift, announced just before Obama left Washington, underscores the desert kingdom’s pivotal role in U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the military campaign against the Islamic State group.
Saudi Arabia’s status as one of Washington’s most important Arab allies has at times appeared to trump U.S. concerns about the terrorist funding that flows from the kingdom and about human rights abuses.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama would meet on Tuesday with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and other officials to “offer his condolences on behalf of the American people.”
The president called Salman from Air Force One to express his sympathies on the passing of Abdullah, his older brother. The White House said the king welcomed the news that Obama would be traveling to Riyadh.
Obama’s pivot comes two weeks after the White House faced criticism for not sending a high-level representative to Paris for a peace rally in the wake of terrorist attacks in France. The White House later said it was a mistake that someone with more stature than the U.S. ambassador to France had not joined the dozens of world leaders who marched arm in arm through the boulevards of Paris.
White House officials said Obama’s stop in Saudi Arabia was not influenced by the Paris misstep. But it could keep similar criticism at bay as other world leaders head to Riyadh to offer condolences.
Conversely, Obama’s willingness to visit Saudi Arabia, a country with ties to the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks, could give critics a fresh reason to question why the president did not stand with Western allies in a symbolic show of defiance against violent extremism.
The schedule change meant that Obama, who was due to arrive in New Delhi this morning, would skip a visit to the Taj Mahal, India’s famed white marble monument of love.
The rest of Obama’s travel itinerary was to remain intact, including meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a summit with U.S. and Indian business leaders, and his participation in the annual Republic Day festivities marking the enactment of India’s constitution.
Modi, who took office in May, surprised the White House by inviting Obama to attend the parade as his guest, the first time that honor has been bestowed on an American president.
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