President Barack Obama will take a bipartisan delegation of prominent current and former officials with him when he flies to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to offer his condolences on the death of King Abdullah, White House officials announced.
Joining the president will be his Republican opponent from 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and several veterans of past Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice, and two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Stephen J. Hadley.
Also meeting up with Obama in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, will be senior figures from his own administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry; John O. Brennan, the director of the CIA; and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the U.S. Central Command, the military unit that oversees Middle East operations.
White House officials said several Democratic members of Congress would be part of the delegation as well, including some who were already traveling with the president as part of his three-day visit to India, which ends on Tuesday. Those to join him for the trip to Riyadh include Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York.
The heavyweight delegation, hurriedly assembled over the past couple of days, underscores the importance that the United States places on its relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just for its ample supplies of oil but also for its leadership in the region and its assistance with intelligence and counterterrorism.
In addition to paying respects to the family of Abdullah, who died Friday, Obama plans to meet with his successor, King Salman. In part, the goal of the trip is for the president and his team to take Salman’s measure and, quietly at least, assess his health. Salman, 79, has had at least one stroke and lost some movement in one of his arms.
While Obama has met Salman before, they do not have a notable relationship. But U.S. officials were encouraged that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister, was named deputy crown prince, signaling a next generation of leadership, because he has a long history of working with the U.S. on counterterrorism issues. Nayef has met with Obama at least twice.
In keeping with that, Obama’s delegation includes a number of current and former officials who have worked with Nayef and his colleagues on terrorism issues, including Brennan; Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser; Joseph W. Westphal, the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh; Samuel Berger, a former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton; and Frances Fragos Townsend, a former counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush.
Obama is scheduled to spend only four hours on the ground in Riyadh, long enough for a meeting and a dinner at a palace, before heading back to Washington. But the fact that he decided to go sent a message, since he rarely makes overseas trips when a country’s current or former leader dies. One of the few exceptions was the 2013 memorial to Nelson Mandela, the late South African president.
In part, aides said, that reflects the fact that few leaders of close allies have died in office during Obama’s tenure, and they noted that it was fortunate timing that when Abdullah died, the president was already about to head to India, putting him relatively close by for an extra stop in Riyadh.
Obama has had his disputes with Saudi leaders, most notably on how far to go in negotiating with Iran and on how to respond to the threat posed by the terrorist group called the Islamic State. But like his Democratic and Republican predecessors, he has leaned on Saudi Arabia for help in the region.
“It will be a chance for us to make sure that we’re in good alignment going forward where we have overlapping interest,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Obama. “I think you saw the king send a signal that he’s committed to continuity in terms of Saudi Arabia’s approach to those issues. But again, I think we’re well placed to continue cooperation.”