Saudi King's No-show at Gulf Summit Bodes Ill for Obama

Move by monarch to miss Camp David confab sends a message that his country will dictate policy and demands America's resolute support of it.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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President Obama and King Salman meeting in Riyadh, January 2015.
President Obama and King Salman meeting in Riyadh, January 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"King Salman is busy with the implementation of the cease-fire in Yemen and with supervising the humanitarian assistance being provided to the country, and therefore will be unable to attend the summit meeting at Camp David.”

That was how Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir explained, or tried to excuse, the surprising decision this weekend by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud to absent himself from the summit of Gulf states' leaders with U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday.

There is no question that Yemen’s predicament and the cease-fire that is designed to enable aid shipments to enter that country are very important, but the Saudi kingdom has enough officeholders who can keep an eye on the Yemenite campaign. They range from Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the 79-year-old ruler’s son, to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and various other senior officials.

Apparently, however, the Saudi monarch wants to send a loud and clear message to President Obama when, at the last moment, and in spite of the White House announcement of his arrival, he canceled his participation in the confab.

In other words, Saudi Arabia doesn’t intend to listen any longer to words of explanation, apology, persuasion or praise from the president of the United States, and it is demanding a determined American policy, no less than that demonstrated by Saudi Arabia itself when it embarked on its war against the Houthis in Yemen.

The king’s public diplomatic step was not meant to threaten or to signal a severance of relations with the United States – Saudi Arabia is not seeking an alternative to relations with the world's major power – but rather to dictate policy.

Two central issues are in dispute between Riyadh and Washington: Iran and Syria. In both cases Saudi Arabia wants not only American promises and reassurance, but real action.

Iran's three keys

Saudi Arabia is preparing for the signing of the world powers' nuclear agreement with Iran. Its immediate fear is not that Iran may develop nuclear weapons, but rather the new strategic status the agreement is liable to confer upon Tehran. If the latter gains international legitimacy, it will be able not only to compete with Saudi Arabia for a share of the oil market: It is also liable to begin to join negotiations dealing with regional conflicts. After all, Iran holds at least three strategic keys: in Syria (and Lebanon), in Iraq and in Yemen.

The foreign ministers of the Gulf states who met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris at the end of last week presented ideas and suggestions for cooperation in Yemen and Syria. In the former, the objective is to oust the Houthis from all the government institutions, and to restore them to their status as a minority that will participate in the rehabilitation of the country, but not as leaders who will allow Iran to exert influence over Yemen.

As to Syria, King Salman’s position is clear: President Bashar Assad cannot be part of the diplomatic solution to the ongoing war there, and his regime will not be part of the negotiations to achieve such a solution. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are also demanding the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria, and the funding and arming of all the militias (with the exception of the Islamic State), including Jabhat al Nusra, which is allied to Al-Qaida, on condition that it renounces its loyalty to the latter.

In this way, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are rejecting the Egyptian position, to the effect that Assad must be involved in resolving the unrest in his country, and also criticizing the hesitancy of Washington, which has reduced its assistance to the militias.

Saudi Arabia has also been able to bring Turkey into the Arab alignment it is establishing: The two countries see eye to eye regarding the need to remove Assad and not make do just with a battle against the Islamic State.

Another proposal is to establish a defensive alliance between the United States and the Gulf states – of the type that will make clear to Iran that it is confronting an efficient military alliance, not just powers that seek to check Iranian influence.

Washington is still acting hesitantly in the face of these demands. Creation of the proposed defensive alliance requires the approval of Congress, which may not support it. Nor is the president himself enthusiastic about signing such a treaty, which is liable to get the United States mired in violent conflicts in the Middle East although its policy it basically to keep a distance from any such involvement.

The purpose of the Saudi message is, therefore, to enlist Washington to approve the road map being formulated by King Salman, to push Obama into a decision – but not to break off relations with the United States. Furthermore, the monarch announced that he would be willing to meet with Obama “at a later date” that he didn’t name, depending on the answers received by the Gulf states’ representatives at the Camp David summit later this week, outside Washington.

At the same time, one source in the Gulf explained that the king refrained from traveling to the United States due to his physical and mental condition. King Salman suffered a stroke and apparently has shown signs of Alzheimer’s disease as well, and is thus afraid of being embarrassed at the conference, the source said.

One popular Saudi blogger, who demonstrates considerable knowledge about what is going on in the royal court, reported that it was Kuwaiti leader Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the king’s close friend, who advised him against the trip. But even if that is true, King Salman could have announced well in advance that he did not intend to come, and certainly not cancel the visit at the last moment.

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