The United States President Barack Obama, who is currently on a tour of India, will cut short his diplomatic trip in the Asian subcontinent after the sudden demise of the Saudi king Abdullah, the Associated Press news agency (AP) reports.
Obama had visited India for strategic talks for a three-day period, of which the itinerary included an open-air audience with India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi, but the sudden death of the long-reigning King Abdullah ibn Abdilaziz Al Saud yesterday after being admitted to hospital with a lung infection has caused a sudden change of plans. The Saudis are one of America’s key allies in the Middle East. Indian officials told AP that President Obama will be heading immediately to Riyadh to pay his respects to the monarch, who was widely applauded in the West as a reformer who favoured some elemental women’s rights and helped preside over Saudi Arabia’s march forward as a regional power. He was only hours away from making a scheduled touristic trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra, just outside Delhi, when the passing of the Saudi ruler was announced. An official, Pradeep Bhatnagar, who is based out of Agra, said that American counterparts informed him today that Obama would not be visiting the ‘monument of love’ and would immediately jet off to Saudi Arabia, according to AP.
The US president had intended to hold a series of meetings with prime minister Modi on Sunday (tomorrow) and then arrive in New Delhi to be a special VIP guest alongside India’s political elites for the country’s yearly Republic Day celebrations and parades the following Monday. US officials have stated that the Saudi trip is a detour and that Obama will continue to press on with his India tour at an unspecified later date.
Josh Earnest, a spokesperson with the White House – the official presidential residence – said that president Obama and First Lady Michelle would travel to Riyadh on Tuesday this week and meet with the newly-crowned Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Salman is the half-brother of the late King Abdullah and previously held the portfolio as the kingdom’s defence minister since 2011, according to Wikipedia sources. The US had planned to send a separate delegation headed by Vice-President Joe Biden to Riyadh, but spokesperson Earnest said that these plans were dropped after the White House realised that Biden’s visit would clash with Obama’s departure from India. Biden will not now be attending the Riyadh function and will remain on official duties in Washington.
President Obama’s visit to India comes during a period of strengthening relations between the two superpowers. AP reported that Obama and Modi had got along very well and had built a good rapport as leaders of two of the world’s largest democracies. The Indian prime minister, formerly the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, visited Washington in autumn 2014, and invited the US president to return the compliment as a guest for India’s Republic Day on January 26th, 2015.
“It took us by some surprise,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “There’s a great affinity between the United States and India and our people, but there’s also a history that is complicated and that would have made it seem highly unlikely that a U.S. president would be sitting with India’s leaders at their Republic Day ceremony.“
There have been tensions in the past, mostly over India’s nuclear programme, which some US observers feared would exacerbate tensions with nuclear arch-rival and neighbour Pakistan. Washington has also been perturbed by India’s reluctance to open up their carefully regulated state industries to more foreign investment and to tackle rampant infringement of often US-owned copyrights and patents, such as in pharmaceuticals and digital media.
The two countries have however enjoyed good relations particularly in the trade, science and education fields. Officials in the US also hope the warm ties between the two leaders will also help address issues such as the Indian contribution to tackling climate change, including the limitation of carbon admissions from its rapidly developing industrial areas, as well as provide American business leaders with new opportunities and linkups with big business in Asia.
After some deliberations from White House advisers, Obama was cleared to pay a visit to Modi at New Delhi. As well as attending the Republic Day celebrations in an official capacity, he was also scheduled to meet with local and US business leaders as well as attend bilateral meetings with India’s prime minister. Barack Obama has the new distinction of being the first American leader to visit India more than once. He previously visited for an economic summit held in 2010.
Obama’s tour of India is expected to be loaded with symbolism with fewer ‘substantive advances’, although significant issues such as climate change, economics and defence ties are expected to be on the agenda for discussion. Modi will also use the visit to help protect his country against any aggressive political complications from either China or Pakistan, according to AP, as well as neatly coinciding with his election promise to revolutionise Asia’s third-largest economy.
Indian political commentator Ashok Malik, speaking to AP, said expectations for concrete deliverables during the visit are “below the standards usually set by U.S. presidents when they travel across the world for a three-day visit.“
The tête-à-tête with Obama also marks a significant sea-change for PM Narendra Modi, who was once denied a US visa in 2005 after protests at his alleged but unproven involvement with the Godhra incident of 2002, which saw religious riots paralyse the state he governed at the time.