WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that its new monarch, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman, would not be attending meetings at the White House with President Obama or a summit gathering at Camp David this week.
The announcement was an apparent signal of Saudi Arabia’s continued displeasure with the administration over US relations with Iran, its rising regional adversary.
As recently as Friday, the administration said that Salman would be coming to “resume consultations on a wide range of regional and bilateral issues,” according to Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
But on Sunday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said that the king would instead send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister. The agency said the summit would overlap with a five-day cease-fire in Yemen that is scheduled to start on Tuesday to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Arab officials said they viewed the king’s failure to attend the meeting as a sign of disappointment with the administration’s attempt to reassure him that the United States would back its Arab allies against a rising Iran.
A senior administration official, however, said that White House officials did not believe that Salman’s absence was because of any disagreement.
“We look forward to the attendance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, with whom the president has met on several occasions, including in the Oval Office in December 2014 and January 2013, as well as Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the president met when he traveled to Riyadh in January,” a White House official said.
Jon Alterman, senior vice president with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Salman’s absence is both a blessing and a snub.
“It holds within it a hidden opportunity,” he said, “because senior US officials will have an unusual opportunity to take the measure of Mohammed bin Salman, the very young Saudi defense minister and deputy crown prince, with whom few have any experience.”
But he added it “sends an unmistakable signal when a close partner essentially says he has better things to do than go to Camp David with the president, just a few days after the White House announced he’d have a private meeting before everything got underway.”
Secretary of State John Kerry met Friday in Paris with counterparts from Arab nations that were invited to the summit — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman — to discuss what the Arab nations were expecting from the meeting and to signal what the United States was prepared to offer at Camp David.
But administration officials said Arab officials had pressed for a defense treaty with the United States pledging to defend them if they come under external attack. That was always going to be hard, as such treaties — similar to what the United States has with Japan — must be ratified by Congress.
Instead Obama is prepared to offer a presidential statement, one administration official said, which is not as binding and which future presidents may not have to honor.
In addition, the Arab countries would like to buy more weapons from the United States, but that also faces a big obstacle — maintaining Israel’s military edge. The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that US defense firms can sell to Arab nations, in an effort to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region.
That is why, for instance, the administration has not allowed Lockheed Martin to sell the F-35 jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal, to Arab countries. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been approved for sale to Israel.
In Paris on Friday, Kerry said the United States and its Arab allies were “fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create between the US and GCC a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.”
The king is the latest top Arab official who will not be at the summit meeting for delegations from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The United Arab Emirates will also send its crown prince to the meetings, officials said. The Emirati president, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was never expected to attend, because of health reasons, US and Arab officials said.
The sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, also will not be attending because of health reasons, officials said.