President Barack Obama sought to put a brave face on America’s troubled relations with its Gulf allies on Wednesday when four of the region’s monarchs failed to appear for a Camp David summit.
Of the six Gulf rulers invited to the occasion, only the leaders of Qatar and Kuwait made the journey to America.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the new leader of Saudi Arabia and America’s foremost ally in the Arab world, pointedly stayed away. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the kingdom’s interior minister, went to America in his stead.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have been dismayed by Mr Obama’s willingness to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, a country they regard as a mortal enemy.
The Arab monarchies believe that the agreement on the table will leave Iran with the essential infrastructure for making a nuclear weapon. They are also wary of the consequences of easing sanctions, fearing that billions of dollars of oil revenues and unfrozen assets will then flow into Iran’s coffers, strengthening its hand in the Middle East.
The Gulf states bitterly remember how they were kept in the dark about the secret talks between Iran and America that preceded the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva in 2013.
Instead of greeting the Saudi king, Mr Obama met Prince Mohammed in the Oval Office. The president said that America remained committed to its alliance with Saudi Arabia “during a very challenging time”.
Prince Mohammed responded by saying that the kingdom was “working with you to overcome the challenges and bring about calm and stability to the region”.
The central purpose of the summit was to reassure the Gulf states before America concludes a final nuclear agreement with Iran by the deadline of June 30. Yet the absence of King Salman meant the occasion was effectively stillborn.
The most pointed snub was delivered by King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, who chose to stay away from America in favour of attending the Royal Windsor Horse Show as a guest of the Queen. The rulers of Oman and the United Arab Emirates also failed to appear, although both are unwell.
Only Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the ruler of Qatar, made the journey. Despite the absentees, a full day of talks will take place in Camp David today.
Michael Doran, a Middle East expert at the Hudson Institute and former member of the George W Bush administration, said the Gulf states wanted America to do more to contain Iran’s ambitions – particularly in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where Tehran is supplying weapons and funds to favoured allies.
”They feel the United States is empowering Iran with this nuclear deal and Obama is trying to make a ‘show’ of the relationship, even as he refuses to give the Gulf powers what they want, which is to contain Iran in the region,” said Mr Doran.
The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also want America to strengthen its commitment to their security, particularly if the impending agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s nuclear programme.
But US officials have privately rejected the idea of a formal treaty, offering instead to carry out more military exercises in the region and allow the sale of more advanced weaponry to help the Gulf states protect themselves.
America is steadily achieving energy independence, reducing its reliance on oil supplies from the Middle East. “The leverage is much more in Washington than in the Gulf,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
On the eve of the summit, Mr Obama used an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned newspaper published in London, to deliver a message of reassurance. “There should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to the security of the region and to our GCC partners,” he said.
Mr Obama made clear that America would oppose Iran’s “dangerous and destabilising behaviour” across the region, adding: “But even if the political dynamics in Iran do not change, a nuclear deal becomes even more necessary because it prevents a regime that is hostile to us from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”