The Obama administration tried to save face Monday over President Obama’s crumbling summit with leaders of Persian Gulf nations, a meeting that four of six key rulers are skipping amid concerns about the U.S. nuclear talks with Iran.
White House aides insisted the president can make progress at Camp David Thursday in a meeting with second-tier representatives of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi King Salman bailed out after formally accepting invitations to the summit and to a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House, but presidential press secretary Josh Earnest said the president doesn’t consider it a snub.
“If so, that message was not received,” Mr. Earnest said. “There’s been no concern raised by our Saudi partners, either before the change in travel plans or after.”
Some foreign policy analysts said the message of dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of Iran is unmistakable, and that the summit is shaping up as a public-relations nightmare for the U.S.
“President Obama had hoped to reassure Gulf leaders about his intentions and, of course, Iran’s,” said Danielle Pletka, a specialist on Middle East security issues at the American Enterprise Institute. “Instead, he has yet another diplomatic and political disaster on his hands.”
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said King Salman won’t attend because the summit is conflicting with a humanitarian cease-fire in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Houthi rebels. Instead, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef will lead the country’s delegation at the talks, which are expected to focus on weapons sales and other regional security issues such as a coordinated missile defense system, the civil war in Syria, building an effective ground force to confront the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, and countering an Iranian-backed insurgency in Yemen.
The U.S. has about 35,000 troops in the region.
The summit reversal by the Saudi ruler comes even after Mr. Obama went out of his way in January to pay his respects to the royal family upon the death of King Abdullah, cutting short a trip to India to do so.
Bahrain, another key U.S. ally in the region, said that its delegation to the summit will be led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, instead of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University, told The Associated Press that Gulf leaders are staying away to signal their displeasure over U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran.
“I don’t think they have a deep respect, a deep trust for Obama and his promises,” he said. “There is a fundamental difference between his vision of post-nuclear-deal Iran and their vision. They think Iran is a destabilizing force and will remain so, probably even more, if the sanctions are lifted. They’re just not seeing things eye to eye.”
The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
The sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, is also among those who won’t attend, although it’s likely due to an illness. The country’s official news agency said Oman will be represented instead by its deputy prime minister, Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said.
Health issues are also expected to keep the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, from attending. He suffered a stroke in January 2014. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president’s half-brother, will lead that country’s delegation.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf rejected talk of a Saudi snub, saying King Salman “made this decision given what’s going on in Yemen.
“He’s sending the crown prince and deputy crown prince who are fully empowered,” she said. “They run intel, they run defense, they run a lot of the areas that we’re actually going to be talking about in detail at Camp David.”
Administration officials also downplayed expectations that the U.S. will give written commitments to its GCC partners about a more robust U.S. role in countering Iran militarily in the region. But foreign policy analysts say that’s what some of the Gulf states are seeking.
“They want a visceral sense that the United States has their back. And they don’t have that sense,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There will be an effort to get the United States to commit to knocking back Iranian regional malfeasance, and I think probably some reluctance from the United States, for example, to get directly involved in Yemen and other places. And that’s probably going to be some issue of contention.”
Mr. Alterman said the Gulf states have significantly different concerns about Iran than the U.S. does.
“The U.S. is really focused on the nuclear threat from Iran, and the U.S. argument is that negotiating an arrangement with the Iranians over their nuclear program will make the Gulf States more secure,” he said. “But from the Gulf State perspective, the nuclear program is only one of the many parts of the Iranian threat. There is the Iranian involvement in Syria, there is the Iranian involvement in Yemen, there is the Iranian involvement in Bahrain and elsewhere that they see as in many ways being a more urgent threat, a more vital threat, and a threat that the United States doesn’t really share their assessment of.”