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After India, Obama Takes Saudi Arabia Detour


Before President Obama left India today, he gave a speech aimed at the country's young people. He stressed the importance of religious freedom, democracy and women's rights. On his way home, the president stopped off in Saudi Arabia, which is not exactly known for those things. NPR's Scott Horsley reports that Obama was there to pay respects to the royal family after the death Friday of King Abdullah.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Saudi stop was a late addition to the president's schedule. He was originally supposed to spend this afternoon sightseeing at India's Taj Mahal. Instead, Obama detoured to Riyadh, where he took the lead of a large and bipartisan U.S. delegation, showing its respect for the late Saudi King.


HORSLEY: The president and Mrs. Obama stepped off Air Force One into blazing sunshine, crossing quickly to a covered pavilion where they shook hands with the Saudi delegation. Secretary of State John Kerry is also here along with secretaries from both Bush administrations, and Republican Senator John McCain. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes says the Saudis hosted a dinner for their American guests. Obama then met with Abdullah's successor and half-brother, King Solomon.


BEN RHODES: Principally, this is to mark this transition in leadership and to pay respects to the family and to the people of Saudi Arabia. But they'll touch on some of the leading issues where we cooperate very closely with Saudi Arabia.

HORSLEY: Those issues include the battle against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi Air Force has been flying missions there alongside the U.S. The leaders also plan to discuss the volatile situation in neighboring Yemen. The Yemen-based terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris earlier this month. Rhodes says the U.S. efforts to fight that group will continue despite the forced resignation of the pro-American Yemeni president.


RHODES: We've made clear that we'll take direct action inside of Yemen against AQAP targets. That's something we've done in the past. I'd anticipate us doing that in the future.

HORSLEY: In this challenging atmosphere, made more so by the sharp drop in oil prices, the new Saudi King has promised continuity. The late King Abdullah, who effectively ruled his country for the last 20 years, took some baby steps in the direction of improving women's rights. But the White House acknowledged this Persian Gulf ally still has a long way to go. Women's rights was a key theme for the president in India today as he spoke to an audience of young people.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If nations really want to succeed in today's global economy, they can't simply ignore the talents of half their people.

HORSLEY: Obama says while neither India nor the United States has a perfect track record of treating all its people fairly, both countries have advanced by opening more doors to those of different backgrounds and different faiths.


OBAMA: Across our two great countries we have Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs and Jews and Buddhists and Jains and so many faiths. And we remember the wisdom of Gandhiji, who said for me the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden where they are branches of the same majestic tree.


HORSLEY: Rhodes was asked if Obama would push that same message of religious pluralism in Saudi Arabia, where the Royal family owes its power to its longtime alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam. The White House adviser replied long-term stability in Saudi Arabia will depend on reform. But he quickly added places don't change overnight. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Riyadh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.