President Barack Obama marvelled at the sights of Jordan’s ancient city of Petra on Saturday as he wrapped up a four-day Middle East tour by setting aside weighty diplomatic matters and playing tourist for a day.
The visit followed a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories that was capped by Obama’s brokering of a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey but which offered little more than symbolic gestures toward Middle East peacemaking.
Before heading to Petra, Obama used his stop in Jordan to ratchet up criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but he stopped short of promising military aid to Syrian rebels to help end a two-year-old civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives.
U.S. officials privately voiced satisfaction with the results of Obama’s first foreign trip of his second term, but the president’s aides had set expectations so low that it was not hard to proclaim it a mission accomplished.
Shifting into sightseeing mode on Saturday, Obama flew by helicopter to Petra and took a walking tour of the restored ruins of a city more than 2,000 years old which is half-carved into sandstone cliffs.
Ordinary tourists had been cleared out for the president’s visit, and guards with assault weapons dogged his every step.
“This is pretty spectacular,” the president, wearing sunglasses, khaki trousers and a dark jacket, said as he craned his neck to look up at the Treasury, a towering rose-red façade cut into a mountain. “It’s amazing.”
The U.S. president arrived in Jordan on Friday after an unexpected diplomatic triumph in Israel, where he announced a breakthrough in relations between Israel and Turkey after a telephone conversation between the countries’ prime ministers.
Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu apologised on behalf of his country for the killing of nine Turkish citizens in a 2010 naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, and the two feuding U.S. allies agreed to normalise ties.
The 30-minute call was made in a runway trailer at Tel Aviv airport, where Obama and Netanyahu huddled before the president boarded Air Force One for a flight to Jordan.