Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will not attend a Camp David summit of U.S. and allied Arab leaders, his foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said Sunday.
In a statement, al-Jubeir said the summit Thursday coincides with a humanitarian cease-fire in the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Shiite rebels known as Houthis. He said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also interior minister, would lead the Saudi delegation and the king’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is defense minister, will also attend.
President Obama had planned to meet Salman one-on-one a day before the gathering of leaders at the presidential retreat but the White House did not take his decision to skip the summit as a sign of any substantial disagreement with the U.S.
“We first learned of the King’s possible change of plans from Saudis on Friday night,” a senior U.S. administration official told Fox News. “This was confirmed by the Saudis on Saturday. We coordinated closely with our Saudi partners on the alternate arrangement and timing of the announcement and look forward to welcoming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is not in response to any substantive issue.”
The king, who took power in January after his brother King Abdullah died, has not traveled abroad since his ascension to the throne.
At the summit, leaders of Gulf nations will be looking for assurance that Obama has their support when the region feels under siege from Islamic extremists and Syria, Iraq and Yemen are in various states of chaos. Arab allies also feel threatened by Iran’s rising influence and worry the nuclear pact taking shape with the U.S., Iran and other nations may embolden Tehran to intrude more aggressively in countries of the region.
What are the expectations for Obama’s meetings with Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman?
Weapons sales. A renewed call for a coordinated missile defense system. More joint military exercises. Better cooperation on cybersecurity, as well as maritime or border security. Making the countries’ defense systems work in concert.
“I don’t believe there’s a single country (in the council) that doesn’t think a defense shield for the region is a bad idea,” Otaiba said. “The challenge is how do you turn on a regional defense system when different countries are purchasing different equipment and at different paces? How do you link it? How do you get the radars to talk to each other?”
A high-level Saudi official told The Associated Press in Riyadh that his country wants a defense system and military cooperation similar to what the U.S. affords Israel. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose details of the Saudis’ wish list at the summit, said they also want access to high-tech military equipment, missiles, planes and satellites, as well as more technology and training cooperation with the U.S.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Obama will have to work hard to convince the Arab allies that they do not need to fear fallout from any nuclear deal.
“Right now they feel that they have no support from this administration so he has a steep hill to climb,” said McCain, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s decision to act unilaterally in Yemen.
McCain said that’s why the Saudis gave Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, only “an hour’s notice they were going to strike Yemen.” Saudi Arabia has led airstrikes against Iranian-backed rebels who have toppled the Yemeni government.
Secretary of State John Kerry declines to say exactly what kind of reassurances Obama is prepared to offer at Camp David.
In general terms, Kerry said Friday in Paris, the U.S. wants to strengthen its “security-military relationship” with its Gulf allies and tackle a variety of problems, “foremost of which is the Iranian interference in the affairs of the countries of the region.”
He said U.S. officials were fleshing out commitments that will create a “new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate panel overseeing foreign aid, warns against the U.S. offering a massive arms package in exchange for Gulf nations’ support of a nuclear deal. Graham said he isn’t opposed to upgrading the military capabilities of Arab allies, but “if it has a hint of being connected to the Iran deal, I will do everything I can to make sure they never get one bullet or one plane.”
Jon Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wonders if there is anything the United States can do that would reassure the Gulf states when it comes to Iranian expansionism.
“It seems to me that where they most want reassurance is where the U.S. is both least able and most unwilling to provide it,” he said. “My guess is that the summit is going to leave everybody feeling a little bit unsatisfied.”