RIYADH - U.S. President Barack Obama is likely to hear Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah air his worries about the festering Arab-Israeli conflict and rising Iranian influence when he visits Riyadh next week.

Obama, who meets King Abdullah on June 3, added a surprise Saudi leg to his trip to Europe and Egypt, where he plans to deliver a much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world.

The decision reflects the enduring importance of a bilateral bond based on guaranteed oil supplies in return for U.S. protection for the Saudi monarchy that was sealed in the 1940s.

Washington is keen to prevent any spike in oil prices that might threaten economic recovery -- U.S. crude hit a year-high on Tuesday.

For their part, Saudi officials fret that Obama's diplomatic overtures to Iran might rejig regional relationships at Riyadh's expense.

They also want him to get tough with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has balked at Palestinian statehood.

Saudi Arabia wants reassurances that Obama is rejecting Netanyahu's statements, said Mustafa Alani, at Dubai's Gulf Research Center, who is close to Saudi policymakers.

The Saudis can take heart from Obama's stern line against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

But Alani said they would make no concessions beyond a 2002 Arab peace plan promoted by King Abdullah offering Israel recognition in return for withdrawal from Arab land occupied in 1967 and a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Saudi rulers believe the collapse of Middle East peacemaking has given Iran opportunities to expand its regional reach via Sunni Islamist groups such as the Palestinian Hamas, as well as its traditional Shi'ite Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

The kingdom, which sees itself as the bastion of majority Sunni Islam, fears an eventual U.S. deal with Iran would make the Shi'ite power part of a new political and security order.

But with no clear strategy on how to tackle Iran, the Saudis can only rely on the United States to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, analysts and Riyadh-based diplomats say.

The Saudis are in a very, very tough spot, said Rochdi Younsi at political risk consultant Eurasia Group. They don't know what they want. On one hand they want the U.S. to pursue a policy of strict containment of Iran. At the same time, they don't want the situation to escalate to an armed conflict.


The United States itself might appreciate a Saudi role in countering Taliban insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Saudis hosted talks in September between pro-government Afghan representatives and ex-Taliban officials on how to end a conflict which also involves the Taliban's al Qaeda allies.

The Saudis have developed some influence that might come in handy for the Obama administration that is trying to refocus its efforts in Afghanistan, said Younsi.

Diplomats in Riyadh said the kingdom would have to weigh the benefits of such a role against possible damage to its campaign to improve its image in the West after the September 11 attacks of 2001, in which 15 of the 19 al Qaeda hijackers were Saudis.

They might do it, but would be also a bit worried at being perceived as having close Taliban links, while trying to present themselves in a new light, said a Western diplomat.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized abroad for its human rights record, but Younsi said Obama was unlikely to raise unwelcome questions about political reforms, despite the government's decision this month to delay municipal elections for two years.

The United States needs Saudi Arabia, which has over a fifth of global oil reserves, to play its customary moderating role in the OPEC cartel against price hawks such as Iran and Venezuela.

The Saudis are the only ones who have spare capacity, said Alani, the Dubai-based analyst.

They will be able to pump even more crude to brake prices when the 1.2 million barrel per day Khurais field opens in June.

Saudi Arabia is among America's top 15 trading partners, with two-way trade worth $67.3 billion last year. The kingdom, whose currency is pegged to the dollar, has expanded trade with Asia in recent years, but still needs high-tech U.S. goods.

The United States will remain the biggest individual country trade partner for Saudi Arabia, although its role is likely weaken a bit due to increased trade volumes with Asia, said Monica Malik, a regional economist at EFG-Hermes.