RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal assured visiting Secretary of State John Kerry Monday there is no problem with the United States, saying "our two friendly countries" are busy dealing with troublesome issues like Syria, Iran and the Mideast peace process.
"The fact of the matter is that the historic relationship between the two countries has always been based on independence, mutual respect and constructive cooperation," al-Faisal said at a joint appearance with Kerry.
The secretary arrived for his visit here amid indications of strains in relations between Riyadh and Washington over the Obama administration's policy toward war-torn Syria, its movement toward a possible dialogue with Iran, a regional rival of the Saudis, and its stance on Egypt.
The prince told Kerry: "A true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness, rather than mere courtesy." The pair appeared together not long after Kerry, speaking to U.S. employees at the American Embassy here, hailed the kingdom's role as "the senior player" in the Middle East.
Kerry in the past has played down the separate stances as differences in "tactics" rather than in the end goal.
"Right now, we have some very important things to talk about to make certain that the Saudi Arabian-U.S. relationship is on track, moving forward and doing the things that we need to accomplish," he told the embassy staffers. Kerry listed a number of key areas, including Syria, Egypt and Iran, but also mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the broader effort to tamp down "nihilism" that leads to extremist violence.
The Saudis have complained that the United States did not follow through on its threat to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad with military strikes for his government's use of chemical weapons. Last month, the Saudis won but turned down an elected seat on the U.N. Security Council, saying the body had proved itself largely meaningless because of its inability over two years to address the crisis in Syria. The Saudis also have watched with increasing nervousness as President Barack Obama has approved a cautious opening with their archrival Iran.
The prince said Monday that "the kingdom's declination of membership in the Security Council in no way shape or form amounts to the withdrawing from the United Nations." He also lamented the international organization's "failure to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone."
"This time bomb cannot be defused by only dealing with its ramification or maneuvering around it," al Faisal said.
Eager to soothe the frustration, Kerry was effusive in his praise of the Saudis, noting a slow, but steady domestic transformation with new emphases on education and health. He did not specifically refer to recent protests against restrictions on women being able to drive but noted that people who live in the country can see that "there are things that are changing."
"It doesn't happen overnight, it takes time," he said.
On the regional strategic issues of particular interest to the United States, Saudi Arabia is now the major Arab power, Kerry said.
"The Saudis have the ability to be able to influence a lot of the things that we also care about," he said before meeting with Saudi King Abdullah and al-Faisal.
"The Saudis are very, very important to all of these things. The Saudis are really the sort of senior player, if you will, in the Arab world, together with Egypt. Egypt is in more of a transition, so Saudi Arabia's role is that much more important."
The comments came as the trial of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi began on Monday, a day after Kerry visited Cairo in a bid to get U.S.-Egypt relations on better footing. His brief stop in Egypt on Sunday was the highest-level visit by a U.S. official to the country since the military deposed Morsi in July and began a crackdown on his supporters prompting the Obama administration to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Restoring that assistance will require progress on returning to a democratically elected civilian government.
Looking to ease the concerns of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, Kerry said in Cairo that all of them could count on America's support.
"The United States will be there for the defense of our friends and our allies," Kerry told reporters in Cairo. "We will not allow those countries to be attacked from outside. We will stand with them."
He specifically mentioned the Sunni majority states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt as nations, along with unspecified "others" in the region. Those others likely would include Israel, the strongest U.S. ally in the region. All have vested interests in seeing an end to the turmoil in Syria and are extremely wary of Shiite Iran's regional intentions.
And, he proclaimed that "Iran will not get a nuclear weapon."
"That is a promise by the president of the United States."
Kerry is in Saudi Arabia on the second leg of a 10-day tour through the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. From Riyadh, he will travel to Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco before returning to Washington.