The White House is dismissing reports the absence of Gulf country leaders at Thursday’s summit at Camp David in Maryland is a snub and will put a damper on talks aimed at strengthening the security relationship between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that King Salman will not take part in the summit at the presidential retreat 100 kilometers from Washington on May 14, as planned. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said King Salman will send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in his place. He cited the summit's overlap with a five-day cease-fire and humanitarian effort in neighboring Yemen where Saudi Arabia has led a campaign of airstrikes against anti-government fighters.
But even before the announcement that Saudi King Salman would not attend the meeting, there was talk about Gulf nations’ worries surrounding U.S.-led efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with their rival Iran.
The Saudi king’s absence at the upcoming summit dominated Monday’s White House briefing, where Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters it was not related to any Saudi concerns about the agenda at Camp David.
“I know there have been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to send a message to the United States. If so, that message was not received because all of the feedback that we have received from the Saudis has been positive," said Earnest.
Of the six participating nations, only the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar will be present. Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman will be sending senior officials and not heads of state.
The White House said King Salman called President Obama on Monday to express his regret at not being able to travel to Washington and confirmed he was sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - the country's defense minister and the king's son - to represent the Kingdom. The two leaders also discussed Iran nuclear negotiations and the situation in Yemen.
President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says Saudi Arabia and the other five nations will be well represented during the talks.
“We very much feel that we have the right group of people around the table to have a very substantive discussion. These are the people that are responsible for the security portfolios in each of these respective countries,” Rhodes said.
Aside from the Kuwaiti and Qatari emirs, Rhodes said Oman’s deputy prime minister and the crown princes of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi will take part in talks.
Thomas Lippman, with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, downplayed the absence of the four GCC leaders at Camp David, citing the leaders’ ages, health issues, and pressing matters back home in the Middle East.
He says any hypotheses about a walk-out over Iran is unsubstantiated.
"None of these people has any interest in, or anything to be gained by, putting any further distance between themselves and President Obama," Lippman said.
White House officials say Gulf countries are looking for the United States to reaffirm its commitment to their defense given the current uncertainty in the Middle East.
Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor Colin Kahl says the U.S. already has “deep and wide” defense cooperation with GCC countries, noting the 35,000 U.S. forces in the Gulf region and U.S. efforts to ensure countries have access to state-of-the-art weapons.
“Under this administration, we have moved forward on a package for the Saudis that will provide them the most advanced F-15 aircraft in the region. The Emirates fly the most advanced F-16s in the world. They are more advanced than the ones our Air Force flies,” Kahl said.
He says one key summit goal is to ensure GCC countries’ ballistic missile defense systems are more integrated to deal with threats.
“What more can we do with our partners in the GCC to share early warning and to integrate air and missile defenses. We will also look at ways in which we can improve maritime security, improve critical infrastructure protection and cyber defenses,” Kahl said.
But while the White House says Camp David will be more substantive than symbolic, analyst Lippman says it’s unlikely much more will come out of the summit aside from U.S. statements of reassurance and commitment to GCC security.
“If the agenda at this summit is to reassure the Gulfies that the United States is not abandoning them, or ignoring their interests, just in pursuit of this deal with Iran, then they've heard that message and they'll hear it again.”