Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that King Salman would not after all attend a summit with American president Barack Obama this week, embarrassing the oil-exporting kingdom’s key ally which had hoped to use the hastily-arranged conference to reassure Arab monarchs about its dealings with Iran.
The Saudi king’s nephew and crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, will meet with Obama and counterparts from the region at the American leader’s Camp David retreat instead.
White House officials downplayed the significance of the change in plans but had said a day earlier Salman would attend.
The 79-year old monarch ascended the throne in January after the death of his older brother, Abdullah.
Bahrain’s king has also deputized his crown prince while the leaders of Oman and the United Arab Emirates are unwell. Only the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar are now scheduled to attend a meeting where Obama had hoped to win the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ acquiescence for his nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
Despite previous assurances that the talks about Iran’s nuclear program will not involve a “grand bargain” with the Shia state for power in the Middle East, the Arabs worry that their American allies will be willing to overlook recent Iranian strategic gains across the region in order to get a deal.
Arab and Western countries suspect that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this but refuses to open up all its nuclear sites for inspection.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudis felt insufficient progress had been made in advance of the Camp David summit to make the king’s trip worth it. “There isn’t substance for the summit,” one official told the newspaper.
According to the Financial Times, the Obama Administration has been scrambling to come up with measures that would convince Gulf leaders the United States are not about to let Iran dominate the region.
One proposal is for the United States to commit to come to the monarchies’ defense if they are confronted by Iran. However, a formal defense treaty would probably be unacceptable to American lawmakers.
Some of the Arab Gulf states would like to buy the next-generation F-35 fighter plane which is developed jointly with NATO allies and has so far only been sold to Israel. The United Arab Emirates also want to purchase Predator surveillance drones.
Congressional opposition could also get in the way there, especially from members who worry about Israel’s ability to maintain its military edge in the region.
Whatever measures the Obama Administration comes up with are likely to fall short. The Arabs are convinced that a nuclear deal with Iran will shift the balance of power in the Middle East and rightly so. Any form of rapprochement between Iran and the United States would come at the expense of their perceived role as Iran’s balancers. If the Americans see Iran as less of a threat to stability, there is less of a need to maintain close alliances with undemocratic governments on the other side of the Persian Gulf.
The Arabs, and Saudis in particular, see Obama’s outreach to Iran as the latest example of an American policy that has consistently worsened their strategic position vis-à-vis Iran.
Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, toppled the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, removing Iran’s primary obstacle to expanding its influence into the Levant. Obama himself withdrew America’s support from the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and later refused to join Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states in wholeheartedly backing the opposition against Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.
Iran also expanded its influence in Baghdad during the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who spent decades in exile in Iran when Hussein was in power. Its forces are now on the ground in Iraq, fighting Islamic State militants alongside — but not in collaboration with — American warplanes.