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Obama travels to Saudi Arabia to reassure ally

ROME -- President Barack Obama is making a fence-mending mission to Saudi Arabia, an important Middle East ally that's grown nervous as the U.S. negotiates with Iran and pulls out troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama left Friday for an overnight trip to Saudi Arabia that has only two items on its public schedule: a meeting and a dinner with King Abdullah at his desert camp, a 30-minute helicopter ride from the capital of Riyadh.

Secretary of State John Kerry was traveling with Obama for what will be the president's third official meeting with the king in six years.

White House officials and Mideast experts say the Saudi royal family's main concern is Iran. They fear Iran's nuclear program, object to Iran's backing of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and see the government of Tehran as having designs on oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes identified the points of anxiety in the relationship when he described Obama's agenda for the trip last week as: “Our ongoing support for Gulf security, our support for the Syrian opposition where we've been very coordinated with the Saudis, the ongoing Middle East peace discussions, as well as both the nuclear negotiations with Iran but also our joint concern for destabilizing actions that Iran is taking across the region.”

The Saudi anxieties have been building over time, according to Simon Henderson, a fellow at The Washington Institute, a think tank focused on Middle East policy.

“Ever since Washington withdrew support for President (Hosni) Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, Abdullah and other Gulf leaders have worried about the reliability of Washington's posture toward even longstanding allies,” Henderson wrote this week. “President Obama's U-turn on military action against Syria over its use of chemical weapons last summer only added to the concern, which has likely morphed into exasperation after recent events in Crimea, where the Saudis judge that President Obama was outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin.”

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