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Image credits: Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, on Thursday, has delegated Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to lead the Saudi delegation to the Gulf summit at Camp David. PHOTO: ANDREW HARNIK/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Rulers Snub Arab Summit, Clouding U.S. Bid for Iran Deal


WASHINGTON—Saudi Arabia’s monarch pulled out of a summit to be hosted by President Barack Obama on Thursday, in a blow to the White House’s efforts to build Arab support for a nuclear accord with Iran.

King Salman’s decision appeared to ripple across the Persian Gulf. Bahrain said on Sunday that its ruler, King Hamad bin Isaa Al Khalifa, had opted not to travel to Washington.

The only two monarchs from the six countries confirmed to attend the summit at the White House and the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., were the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait.

At stake for the White House is Mr. Obama’s key foreign-policy initiative, an Iran pact that is proceeding toward a June 30 deadline without support from regional powers. King Salman’s decision signals that the Arab states aren’t on board and could continue to act on their own to thwart Tehran, as Saudi Arabia has done in leading a military coalition against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

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.

Senior U.S. officials said as recently as Friday that they expected King Salman, who took power in January, to travel to Washington.

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.

The White House on Sunday sought to play down any rift with Riyadh or the other GCC countries, stressing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and his deputy would be at the meetings.

“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,” said Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said King Salman was staying in Riyadh to focus on the Yemen cease-fire and humanitarian aid effort.

“Minister Al-Jubeir reiterated King Salman’s commitment to achieving peace and security in Yemen and his eagerness to the speedy delivery of humanitarian aid to the brotherly people of Yemen,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said.

The Obama administration has cited the GCC summit as crucial for building regional support for the U.S.’s Middle East policies, particularly its diplomatic engagement with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has been sharply critical of the White House’s efforts to curb Tehran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Riyadh has also pressed the U.S. to take more-aggressive steps to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest Arab ally, and to push back the Tehran-supported insurgency in Yemen.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with King Salman on Thursday in Riyadh to discuss the Camp David agenda, U.S. officials said. He then met with the GCC’s foreign ministers in Paris, where he offered to give the GCC countries non-NATO major-ally status, said a senior U.S. official. But the Arab diplomats showed “very, very tepid interest,” the official added.

“It’s something we’re prepared to consider, and we had raised it with them,” the U.S. official said. “But they seemed to think it was not that critical or even important a step.”

Last Monday, French President François Hollande met in Riyadh with King Salman and other Gulf Arab leaders to discuss regional security matters. Within the international bloc of countries negotiating with Iran, France has emerged as the most critical of the effort.

Saudi officials told Mr. Kerry on Friday that King Salman would attend the Camp David summit, U.S. officials said, and that the overall message in Paris was positive.

The White House said that day that the Saudi monarch would meet President Obama on Wednesday ahead of the dinner.

“We have heard nothing negative about what we are trying to do,” the U.S. official said on Sunday.

In Paris, Messrs. Kerry and al-Jubeir agreed on a plan to forge a cease-fire in Yemen and to promote a political transition in the Arab country.

The Obama administration also pushed for better integrating the U.S.’s and GCC countries’ missile defense systems as a way to contain Iran.

“Whoever comes will be empowered to speak in the name of their government and will sign onto whatever‎ is agreed to at Camp David,” the administration official said. “So the dynamics may change based on who’s there and there will have to be maybe some adjustments.”

Some Arab officials said they didn’t believe the agenda at Camp David would go far enough to address their concerns about Iran.

Some of the Arab states said they were hoping the GCC could sign a mutual defense treaty with Washington, similar to South Korea’s and Japan’s.

Such treaties would bind the U.S. to defend the Persian Gulf states if they faced Iranian aggression.

The White House, however, didn’t believe it could win congressional approval to back such a treaty, said U.S. and Arab officials involved in the discussions.

Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Qatar also are seeking more-advanced weaponry to counter Iran, including surveillance equipment, cruise missiles and drones.

These countries also have expressed interest in buying the Pentagon’s more-advanced jet fighter, the F-35.

Sales of such military gear are complicated by the U.S.’s strategic alliance with Israel, these officials said. Congressional legislation mandates the Jewish state must maintain a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.

Two people briefed on the presummit negotiations said the Saudis ultimately decided the agenda wasn’t substantive enough to require the attendance of 79-year-old King Salman.

The Sultanate of Oman, which hosted secret negotiations between the U.S. and Iran in 2012 and 2013, said its deputy prime minister, Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, would lead his country’s delegation. The country’s ruler returned home in March to Muscat from Germany, where he had received months of receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness.

The U.A.E. is sending a delegation led by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Written by The Levant