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Obama welcomes Saudi princes ahead of Gulf security summit

Saudi King Salman's conspicuous absence from Obama's Gulf security summit has given rise to perceptions of a diplomatic slight. The White House and Saudi representatives have sought to downplay such talk.

US President Barack Obama went out of his way to play down talk of a rift with Saudi King Salman as he welcomed Saudi representatives to the White House ahead of a Gulf security summit.

Over the weekend, Salman abruptly decided to skip the White House meeting and a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David and sent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to attend in his place.

Obama received both Saudi officials at the White House Wednesday, lauding the close ties between America and Saudi Arabia.

"The United States and Saudi Arabia have an extraordinary friendship and relationship that dates back to [President] Franklin Roosevelt," Obama said at the beginning of the meeting. "We are continuing to build that relationship during a very challenging time."

The Obama administration endeavored to counter perceptions that King Salman's absence was a diplomatic snub that could potentially undermine efforts to convince Gulf states the US remains committed to security in the region.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was unprecedented that two high-profile Saudi leaders were attending.

"That is an indication that the Saudis certainly take all of this seriously," Earnest told reporters.

Crown Prince bin Nayef lauded what he called the "strategic and historic relationship" with the United States.

Obama said he and the Saudi leaders would discuss how to build on a ceasefire in Yemen and work toward "an inclusive legitimate government." Saudi Arabia has been bombing Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the impoverished Arab country for weeks.

Iran nuclear talks loom large

Ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will also be on the agenda during the security summit.

White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the leaders discussed the "importance of a comprehensive agreement" between Iran and world powers over its nuclear program that verifiably certifies that the program is for civilian, not military purposes.

The Gulf Cooperation Council - comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman - will be seeking assurances from Obama that the US is ready to push back against Shiite Iranian proxies, particularly in Syria, even at the risk of damaging the Iran nuclear negotiations.

bw/cmk (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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