Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
2:21 P.M. IST
MR. EARNEST: So I came back for two reasons. The first is I wanted to commit to your attention a statement that we put out overnight our time from my deputy, Eric Schultz, talking about the recent report from the CBO. Their latest estimate indicates that we’re continuing to make significant progress in expanding access to health care and reducing our deficits. And the deficit is still on track to come down at the fastest sustained pace since the end of World War II. So that was a notable latest estimate from the non-partisan CBO.
The second thing, and Ben will do this, is to give you a little sense of what we’re going to do when we arrive in Saudi Arabia in terms of our schedule. We’ll be there for four hours or so. I’ll let Ben walk through that, then we’ll take a couple of questions.
So, Ben do you want to do this?
MR. RHODES: Sure. So when we get to Saudi Arabia, we expect we’ll have an arrival ceremony and then when we move to the palace, there will be a receiving line with King Salman and the U.S. delegation. Then the Saudis will be hosting a meal for the U.S. delegation, and then that will be followed by a smaller bilateral meeting between President Obama and King Salman. And, again, this is an opportunity to both pay respects to the legacy of King Abdullah, who was a close partner to the United States, and also to touch base on some of the issues where we’re working together with the Saudis -- to include the efforts against ISIL, the situation in the region, including Yemen, Iran nuclear negotiations and the broader U.S.-Saudi relationship.
You saw the list of the delegation that will be meeting us in Riyadh, so you have that list, but happy to answer any questions about the day’s events.
Q Is that delegation -– do you know if they’re all traveling over together? Separately? And the current U.S. officials I assume will be –- will they be part of the bilateral meeting that Obama is having?
MR. RHODES: So my understanding is the majority of them, if not all of them, are flying over together and joining up with Secretary Kerry in Ramstein. So probably not, again, all of them, but I think most of them will be coming together with Secretary Kerry.
And then my expectation would be that they will be all included in the meal and receiving line, but then the bilateral meeting will be more of a working meeting between current U.S. officials and the Saudi King and his delegation.
Q How did you choose the delegation, and can you tell us a little bit about how that all came together?
MR. RHODES: Yes, so in any case we would have a delegation, whether or not the President was leading it. So as soon as we received the news of King Abdullah’s death, we went to work to put together a delegation that represented people who had been invested in the Saudi relationship for a long time and had known King Abdullah well. We wanted to make sure that we had bipartisan representation from members of Congress, given the deep congressional interest and relationship with Saudi Arabia, and we also wanted to make sure we had bipartisan representation across different administrations. And, again, we were able to have a number of former administration officials, including Republican administration officials, join us and then people who worked closely on the Saudi relationship. So I think if you look across it, it meets the threshold of being bipartisan, high-level, and individuals who have worked very closely with Saudi Arabia over many years.
Q Can you bring us up to speed on any new developments in Yemen? Obviously, that will be part of the discussion –- is there any evidence of Iranian support of the Houthis? There’s been allegedly –- do you guys have any factual knowledge on that? And then small clarification: There was some confusion late yesterday about whether it was the embassy or the consulate in Yemen that’s closed to the public –- which is that?
MR. RHODES: So on your second question, there was some confusion. The embassy is open, the embassy is still functioning, people are still going to work at the embassy. What happened is the embassy is not providing consular services. So one function of the embassy is closed, given the security environment, but that should not be equated to the embassy itself closing down. It’s still operating.
With respect to developments in Yemen, it’s still a very fluid situation. I think the different actors inside of Yemen are seeking to determine a way forward that can hopefully deescalate the situation. And what we’ve encouraged consistently is a political process where there can be dialogue rather than the use of violence in determining how the different factions in Yemen can come to a common view about how to move forward.
With respect to the Houthis and Iran, we have seen in the past -- over the course of several months and, indeed, the last several years -- that Iran has, at times, provided materiel support to the Houthis, so they have a relationship. At the same time, however, I think it would be overstating it to suggest that Iran is directing the activities of the Houthis. It’s more to the case that, again, they have a relationship that has included Iran providing support and we’ve spoken out about that in the past.
I think in terms of what we want to see happen, I think all parties in Yemen have an interest in the restoration of stability and a process in which all the people of Yemen can agree upon a path forward that does not rely on the division of the country or the use of violence to achieve political ends. That’s in the interest of all parties, and we would encourage all countries in the region to support that type of constructive process because what we don’t want is the type of sectarian violence that has plagued so many parts of the region. This will clearly be an important agenda item going forward. In the past, Saudi Arabia, leading the GCC countries, has played an enormously important role in supporting stability inside of Yemen and putting forward a framework for a political process that can maintain stability.
Q The President doesn’t seem to have actually met with Salman all that many times. Can you give us a sense of what his sense of Salman is directly and what the White House’s sense -– or is this really a getting-to-know-you meeting?
MR. RHODES: So, yes, King Salman we’ve met a small number of times. In the past, he has held a number of positions in the Saudi system, many of which were focused internal to Saudi Arabia although he also worked on some security portfolios. I think what’s very clear to us is that King Salman has sent a signal of continuity -– I think that in how the royal families manage succession, what they’ve made clear is that they’re going to emphasize continuity in terms of Saudi interest and the Saudi relationship with the United States. So we do believe that Saudi policy will remain quite similar to how it’s been under King Abdullah.
At the same time, given the importance of some of the things we’re doing with Saudi Arabia, including the counter-ISIL campaign, it will be important for the President to establish that relationship with King Salman. He had a close relationship with King Abdullah -– they could pick up the phone, they didn’t always agree, but they could be candid in their differences, but they also were able to do a lot of things together. And I think he’ll want to develop the same time of relationship with King Salman, where we’re able to move forward on areas of common interest and able to be very candid and frank with one another about developments in the region.
Q Do you believe he is in good mental and physical health?
MR. RHODES: We certainly do believe he is ready to assume the duties of King of Saudi Arabia, and so we look forward to working with him on that basis. And, again, we believe that he has made clear that he is ready to take the reins and sustain the U.S. relationship that is based on a series of overlapping interests.
They’ve also identified very capable people in Prince Muqrin and Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who have been very close friends of the United States as well, in their continued plan of succession as we go forward. So I think we have, among the Saudi leadership, led by King Salman, partners who we’ve worked with closely and who will want to stay invested in the efforts like the counter-ISIL campaign, like the pursuit of regional stability, that have been the hallmark of our cooperation.
Q The President just spoke in Delhi about the importance of equality, women’s equality, religious freedom to a successful society –- is that the message he is going to take to the King in Riyadh?
MR. RHODES: Yes, I think, look, what we would say to all of our partners around the world is that we fundamentally believe in a set of values to include equality for women and religious freedom and tolerance. Obviously different countries are in very different places in terms of their embrace of those values. I think what the President would say is that it’s not simply a matter of the United States telling other countries what they should do; it’s frankly a fact that societies are more successful when they respect those types of universal values. And that’s the message he delivered in India.
And then, ultimately, stability in the long run is going to depend on a process of reform in different societies that move in the direction of those values. Again, places don’t change overnight but I think with Saudi Arabia what we’ve said we’d support is a reform process that does provide for greater respect for those types of universal values. King Abdullah took some initial steps in that direction, in terms of more political participation for some people within Saudi Arabia, more access to education for women. But, clearly, much more work needs to be done to realize the types of values that the President was talking about in India, and that will be a consistent part of our dialogue with all countries around the world.
Q Do you guys expect that you’ll be able to readout any of the meetings after they’re done, either when we’re still on the ground or on the flight?
MR. RHODES: Yes, we should be able to do that.
Q A quick question about oil. You didn’t mention oil prices and oil production in your list of sort of issues that you want to discuss. Is that going to be on the agenda at all -– oil production, energy production?
MR. RHODES: Generally speaking, frankly, we have that dialogue with the Saudis in the channels in our government who work on energy policy. It only becomes a leader-to-leader conversation usually when there’s a particular crisis point. So energy and oil is certainly a part of our relationship and our ongoing dialogue with Saudi Arabia. I wouldn’t expect it to be -– certainly not high on the agenda today. And it’s more likely those are the types of issues that we’ll continue to manage at a working level.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
Q Did you guys say that the whole delegation will be at the dinner?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
2:33 P.M. IST