King Salman absence from US summit shows Saudi displeasure

King Salman absence from US summit shows Saudi displeasure
The announcement that King Salman will not be at the US-Gulf summit, together with the ditching of Geneva 3 talks, show that Riyadh is dismayed by US policy in region.
5 min read
11 May, 2015
Obama was supposed to meet Saudi king Salman separately before GCC-US summit (AFP)

Obama's much hyped summit this week with Arab Gulf states seems to have failed before it began.

Only two Gulf leaders will show up in Camp David, the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar. The remaining invitees are sending deputies and ministers to what was thought to be a landmark meeting. 

All of the absentees have health excuses, except the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has been ill, and diplomats said Muscat will be represented by the deputy prime minister.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan will attend, according to diplomats, as UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is also unwell and has not appeared in public since undertaking an operation after a stroke last year.

As for King Salman, he will be missing the summit "due to the timing of the summit, the scheduled humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen and the opening of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir claimed in a statement.

The sudden announcement comes after two days from a statement made by White House spokesman, Eric Shultz, reaffirming the attendance of Saudi King to "resume consultations on a wide range of regional and bilateral issues".

King Salman was expected to meet with Obama separately before the summit.

But recent political and military developments reveal that this sudden decision is not isolated from a broader Saudi rebellion against shifting US foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly towards Iran.

Syrian opposition ditches Geneva

The official announcement of Turkish-Saudi agreement to coordinate rebel support in Syria came this week while its impact has been felt months earlier, as rebels won strategic battles and halted several regime offensives.

As rebels hold their grounds, the internationally-recognised body representing the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has announced Monday after its general assembly in Istanbul that it will opt out of upcoming UN-led consolutations in Geneva.

The decision was made after the SNC accused UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, of "favouring the Syrian regime".

At the same time, a statement is expected soon from Syrian rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia announcing their decision to reject de Mistura's invitation.

The Saudi-Turkish agreement over Syria seeks to turn the tides against Assad, strictly militarily, before any political plan is considered. In the meantime, rebel groups who will abandon Geneva are going to accept Saudi invitation to meet in Riyadh to decide on Syria's future.

Anger over US stance on Yemen

On the eve of Saudi-led operation in Yemen, Obama reiterated his administration's support in a phone call with Saudi king.

The first phone call between the two saw Obama "applauding Saudi action in Yemen". Less than a month into the war, Obama emphasised in another phone call with the king the "urgent need to find a political solution in Yemen".

We are yet to know how much Riyadh is disappointed with US inaction in Yemen. Historically, the US has always mobilised its military prowess to support its Gulf allies at times of war.

What is certain, however, is that Saudi Arabia's new rulers are leading "decisive storms" across the region, at a time when US administration is drafting a decisive deal with Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran.

Having said that, there is little the US can do to please Riyadh while the latter has little options but to live with its clash of interests with Washington.

The Iran Threat

At a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit last week, King Salman said that Iran "aims to expand and impose its hegemony" which threatens regional stability and creates "sectarian sedition".

Yet, GCC has shown signs of accepting a nuclear deal if it is done in a way that is reassuring to Gulf security and interests.

     Saudi Arabia's new rulers are leading "decisive storms" across the region, at a time when US administration is drafting a decisive deal with Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran.

Obama thought to answer GCC concerns through organising a summit in Camp David this week. But Gulf leaders have already learned about what the US administration has to offer.

Obama is prepared to issue a presidential statement after the summit, that reiterates the priority of Gulf security in US foreign policy. However, such statements are usually abstract and not binding.

What the Gulf wants is a defence treaty that ensures US role in defending Gulf states from external threats. But any defence treaty requires ratification by Congress; something that the US President is unlikely to go through right now.

Instead, Obama is expected to make a renewed US push to help Gulf allies create a region-wide defence system to guard against Iranian missiles, Reuters news agency reported.

The offer could be accompanied by enhanced security commitments, new arms sales and more joint military exercises, as Obama tries to reassure Gulf Arab countries that Washington is not abandoning them. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the White House to pretend that the nuclear deal with Iran is merely nuclear. The president is failing to hide his administration's shifting policies.

In an interview with The New York Times a month ago, Obama said that Saudi Arabia should be concerned primarily about internal threats, "populations that, in some cases, are alienated [possibly referring to Saudi Shias in the eastern provinces of the kingdom], youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances".  

Such statements might have angered Riyadh as it reflects the political impact of months of historical Western negotiations with Iran; an impact that can only be measured after the international powers put pen to paper and shake hands with the Ayatollah.