King Salman of Saudi Arabia has announced at the eleventh hour that he will not attend President Obama’s high-profile Arab summit, which starts today at Camp David. As a result, the Administration, which realized late in the day how much it needed the Gulf powers to make a deal stick, now finds its defining foreign policy effort in jeopardy. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Senior Arab officials involved in organizing the meeting said not enough progress had been made in narrowing differences with Washington on issues like Iran and Syria to make the Saudi ruler’s trip worth it.
“There isn’t substance for the summit,” said an Arab official who has held discussions with the Obama administration in recent days. […]
The Obama administration planned the summit as a way to build Arab support for the Iran nuclear deal by giving more arms and security guarantees to members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
As late as Friday, the White House was saying that it expected Saudi King Salman to attend. President Obama had announced he was to meet with the King one-on-one ahead of the Camp David sessions. This morning, Saudi officials covered the snub with diplomatic equivalent of “I have to shampoo my hair”, saying that Salman would not be attending “due to the timing of the summit, the scheduled humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen and the opening of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid.”
Though White House officials pre-emptively tried to dismiss Saudi Arabia’s announcement as “not in response to any substantive issue”, it’s hard to credit that interpretation. The Sunni states are deeply unhappy with the Iran nuclear talks. A high-level Saudi official had indicated to the AP that the Kingdom would like a defense system and military cooperation similar to what the U.S. affords Israel and Japan—something that is widely seen as a political non-starter in the United States. President Obama had indicated as much and was instead considering issuing a presidential statement on U.S. support for its Sunni allies—a declaration his successors would not have to abide by.
The Gulf monarchies were also reportedly unhappy with President Obama’s saying that allies like Saudi Arabia should be worried about internal threats. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa will also not be attending the summit, leaving the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar as the only heads of state still slated to arrive.
Beyond the symbolism of the Saudi gesture, both the Saudis and the President are in a nasty strategic bind here. In Saudi eyes—and in the eyes of the world—nuclear weapons will give Iran its ultimate security guarantee. Even, in a lesser scenario, if Iran merely uses its newfound billions to solidify its regional hegemony through conventional means, this also would pose an unacceptable risk in Riyadh’s eyes. The Saudis have asked the U.S. to counter this by explicitly extending its own defense envelope over them—in effect, offering a nuclear umbrella. This the U.S. is unwilling to do.
The trouble is, absent such firm promises, the Saudis may decide to acquire their own ultimate guarantee. Given their close relationship with Sunni, nuclear-armed Pakistan, this may be fairly easy to do. If the Saudis won’t accept a lesser security package (and they appear to be saying no for now), and if they feel the Iran deal to be weak to the point of licensing the mullahs to acquire nuclear weapons or regional hegemony (it appears they do), then the President’s effort to prevent the spread of nuclear arms in Iran risks sparking a regional nuclear arms race.