Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has declined an invitation to join US President Barack Obama and other Gulf monarchs at Camp David later this week. King Salman has instead sent his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, and much of the Gulf Cooperation Council is following suit in sending lower-level officials.
Qatar and Kuwait were the exceptions, with their respective emirs scheduled to arrive in the United States ahead of the May 14-15 summit. The United States had hoped the meeting between Washington and its Gulf partners would address disagreements over nuclear negotiations with Iran, civil wars in Yemen and Syria, and the emerging balance of power in the region.
US efforts to assuage Saudi doubts have fallen short. No one expected every GCC leader to attend the meeting; UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan has not been seen publicly since he suffered a stroke in January 2014, and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been battling an undisclosed illness for several months. But Saudi Arabia has worked to solidify its position as the leader of the Sunni Arab states over the past year, increasing cooperation with Turkey and Qatar in backing rebels in Syria and cobbling together a broad coalition to support its intervention in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is the center of gravity in the Arab world. The Saudi monarch’s absence at the Camp David summit will be a tacit expression of Riyadh’s frustration with evolving US Middle East strategies.
News of the king’s absence from the summit comes a week after Riyadh and Paris issued a joint statement, following French President Francois Hollande’s visit to the kingdom, expressing common concerns regarding a potential nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. Two days later, US Secretary of State John Kerry also visited Riyadh and met his counterpart, newly appointed Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and King Salman himself. It followed a similar meeting in March ahead of a self-imposed deadline between Iran and the six world powers to reach a framework for an eventual nuclear deal. Washington has struggled to appeal to Gulf concerns, with the Gulf countries reportedly making large demands of their traditional security patron.
Unnamed sources in the region report that the Emiratis communicated to the United States ahead of the meeting that they wanted a formal alliance structure with the United States guaranteeing US support against potential Iranian aggression, continued weapons sales and permanent basing of US troops in the region. This situation defies the US strategy for the Middle East, in which the United States seeks to reduce its direct involvement in a region that has consumed its foreign policy for more than two decades. Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are fearful of such a scenario, which they believe would empower stronger regional competitors Turkey and Iran to expand their influence and shape the region according to their interests.
King Salman’s decision not to take part in what were expected to be landmark negotiations sends a clear message that after months of courtship, Washington and its Gulf partners are far from being on the same page on several key issues. US State Department officials have rejected claims that the Saudi king’s absence was a snub, with spokesperson Marie Harf saying the Gulf nations would be “ably represented” and repeating Riyadh’s stated reason for the king’s absence—the situation in Yemen.
The Saudi king’s decision to prioritize Riyadh’s own national strategy is an ironic outgrowth of US planning to promote a regional balance of power. Saudi assertiveness will remain evident not only in the way Riyadh engages in regional disputes in places such as Syria and Yemen, but also in how it advocates its policy prerogatives internationally, even if it means openly breaking with its primary patron, the United States.
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