Saudi King to Skip US-Gulf Summit
by VOA News May 11, 2015
The White House said Monday Saudi Arabia did not raise concerns about issues to be discussed during a regional summit hosted by President Barack Obama this week, before or after the Saudi king changed plans and decided not to attend.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced late Sunday that King Salman would not attend this week's U.S.-Arab summit, which was to include a planned White House meeting that had been announced only days earlier.
Jubeir 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.
In his place, King Salman is sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also the interior minister, and the king's son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is defense minister, Jubeir said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. is confident the Saudi officials who are coming will be able to represent their country and implement any decisions made during the meetings. He added that countries sending representatives to the summit have made decisions about who they believe is best positioned to represent their countries at the meeting.
Earnest also said Obama had not spoken to King Salman, but was likely to have an opportunity to do so before the summit.
Few leaders in attendance
With the king's decision, four of the six Gulf nation leaders will not be in attendance for the summit, a move analysts say shows Arab allies' displeasure with Washington's handling of Iran.
However, the absences could put a damper on the summit, which was called to address security concerns and build support among Gulf nations about a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
The summit begins Wednesday with delegations from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – visiting the White House, then continues Thursday with talks at the Camp David presidential retreat.
U.S. Senator 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 [Obama] has a steep hill to climb," said McCain.
But the nuclear deal is not the only source of unease.
Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United States, said the Gulf leaders want commitments from President Obama that the United States has their backs at a time when the region is under siege from Islamic extremists, Syria continues to unravel, Iraq is volatile and Yemen is in chaos.
"I think we are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region, given the rise of the extremist threat," Otaiba said. "In the past, we have survived with a gentleman's agreement with the United States about security. I think today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized."
Camp David setting
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declined to say last week exactly what kind of reassurances Obama is prepared to offer at Camp David.
In general terms, Kerry has tried to reassure the Gulf states that Washington will not accept a bad nuclear deal, saying the Camp David discussions would flesh out commitments that will create 'a new security understanding' with the GCC.
With King Salman skipping the summit, only the leaders of Qatar and Kuwait will be heading their delegations. Kuwait's emir, Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah, traveled to Washington Sunday and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was due to depart Doha Monday.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said and United Arab Emirates President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan are not taking part because of health reasons.
Bahrain's delegation will be headed by the tiny island kingdom's crown prince rather than King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa. No reason has been given.
Bahrain is an important military ally of the U.S., having been a 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.
Jonathan Adelman, a regional analyst at the University of Denver, said at least two of the countries – the Emirates and Saudi Arabia – are looking to the United States to create a NATO-like alliance that 'would guarantee that an attack on them is an attack on all,' as well as substantial upgrades to their military capabilities.
'I think the administration, from what we're hearing, isn't prepared to do either,' Adelman said.
The talks will also likely include the ongoing negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and Gulf concerns that Iran would gain freedom from sanctions while still retaining the ability to develop a nuclear weapon.
'It may be a bridge too far for this summit to produce a vision of what the region should look like, how do you get there from here, and how do you get a Saudi-Iranian agreement on that vision,' said Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. diplomat who is now a Middle East studies professor at Northwestern University. 'That's what the summit should be striving for, and I think it will fall quite short of that.'
Like Khoury, Adelman is also pessimistic about the summit, saying the absence of top leaders 'is a tell-tale sign that the odds are stacked against it.'
Aru Pande contributed to this report from the White House. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.
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