DUBAI: It is not just the Saudi king who will be skipping the Camp David summit of US and allied Arab leaders. Most Gulf heads of state won’t be there. The absences will put a damper on talks that are designed to reassure key Arab allies, and almost certainly reflect dissatisfaction among leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council with Washington’s handling of Iran and what they expect to get out of the meeting. Among those who will be at the summit is Kuwait’s Amir HH Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday.
Also, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani departed yesterday to take part in the meeting. Rulers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman never publicly announced they would attend the summit - so officially at least, there was no reversal of plans. However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington last Monday that Saudi King Salman had formally accepted the invitation to meet with President Barack Obama ahead of the summit. Late on Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al- Jubeir announced that newly installed Salman will not be attending.
The ostensible reason was because the upcoming summit on Thursday coincides with a humanitarian ceasefire in the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Shiite rebels known as Houthis. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also interior minister, will lead the Saudi delegation and the king’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is defense minister, will also attend.
“You don’t usually send two of the most senior people you have to deliver a snub,” said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But by “downgrading” the delegation, the kingdom was “attempting to put pressure on the US... It’s a sign that Saudi Arabia would like to see a clearer US strategic commitment to the defence of the Gulf, and clearer signs about how the US intends to deal with Iran.” 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 the Saudi king’s decision to skip the summit as a sign of any substantial disagreement with the United States. The king, who took power in January after his brother King Abdullah died, has not traveled abroad since his ascension to the throne. The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain said separately that its delegation would be headed by the country’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. Bahrain, whose leadership has close ties to the Saudis, is an important military ally of the US.
It is the longstanding host to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is responsible for operations around the Arabian Peninsula and northern Indian Ocean, and is Washington’s main naval counterbalance to Iran. At the summit, leaders of Gulf nations will be looking for assurances that they have Obama’s support at a time when the region feels under siege from Islamic extremists and by Iran’s rising influence. The Gulf states worry the nuclear pact taking shape with the US, Iran and other nations may embolden Tehran to act more aggressively in the region. “The conspiracy theorists of old have been proven right. The US creates threats for us and then offers us more weapons systems. That does not bode well for us,” said Sami Al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti security adviser to the six-nation GCC. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University, said Gulf leaders were staying away from the Camp David gathering to signal their displeasure over the nuclear talks. “I don’t think they have a deep respect, a deep trust for Obama and his promises. There is a fundamental difference between his vision of post-nuclear-deal Iran and their vision,” he said. “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 Saudis aren’t happy about the deal (proposed with Iran) but they still want to be at the table,” a Western diplomatic source said, agreeing that Riyadh had sent a powerful delegation. “Washington will get a fairly strong message from everyone,” the source added. “The Americans are only concerned with the nuclear issue of Iran. They are not concerned with Iranian intervention in our part of the world,” said Jamal Khashoggi, an analyst and head of the Al-Arab News Channel, who is linked to the royal family.
The decision to send Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman may simply be aimed at accelerating a move towards a new generation, added Khashoggi. “Saudi Arabia understands America is important and wants to continue working with it, especially at this time. We are undergoing a major reconstruction effort in the region that requires American support,” he said. Some diplomats in the region believe the absence from Camp David of King Salman and close ally King Hamad of Bahrain may backfire. A Saudi decision in 2013 to vacate a seat on the United Nations Security Council that it had spent years seeking, followed by a leak of angry comments about Washington by then spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, failed to change US policy. “Of course it (Salman’s non-appearance) is a snub. But I don’t think Obama is going to put up with this. He wants the nuclear deal. It is the number one priority,” said a Western diplomat based in the region.
The sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, is among those staying away. The sultanate will be represented instead by the deputy prime minister, Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud Al-Said, and other officials, the country’s official news agency announced. The sultan’s absence comes as little surprise. The long-serving monarch, whose country maintains cordial relations with Iran and has served as a go-between for Tehran and Washington, returned home in March after spending several months in Germany being treated for an undisclosed illness.
Health issues will also keep the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al- Nahayan, from attending. He suffered a stroke in January last year and has not been seen publicly since. The influential Abu Dhabi crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, will lead the Emirati delegation. The president’s half-brother, he held talks with Obama at the White House last month. Abdullah, the Emirati professor, said the Gulf ties with the United States remain strong, but they have been strained during Obama’s tenure. He said Obama is seen within the region as impersonal compared to his predecessors. He also noted that recent comments to The New York Times in which Obama warned that dissatisfaction at home was perhaps a bigger threat than Iran came across as unnecessary “lecturing”. “You just pre-empted the whole meeting with this kind of statement,” he said. — Agencies