Newly crowned Saudi King Salman has refused an invitation to attend a landmark summit hosted by President Barack Obama, amid angst over US-Iran nuclear negotiations.
Obama had invited six Gulf kings, emirs and sultans to the presidential retreat at Camp David, seeking to shore up wavering trust while Washington negotiates with regional power Tehran.
Obama’s plans now lie in tatters, with only two heads of state slated to attend the Thursday meeting.
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington said Sunday that newly-named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would instead lead the Saudi delegation to the meeting.
The king’s youthful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is tipped as a possible future successor and who has driven recent military operations in Yemen — will also attend.
Even before becoming king, Salman was rumored to be suffering from dementia, and his son and the now crown price have played oversized roles in Saudi foreign policy.
As late as Friday, US officials said they had expected Salman to come to Washington, before learning of the change in plan.
“This is not in response to any substantive issue,” insisted one senior US administration official.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Salman would miss the meeting “due to the timing of the summit, the scheduled humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen and the opening of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid,” according to the embassy statement.
Obama had planned to meet the king one-on-one a day before the gathering.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa will also miss the meeting, officials indicated Sunday, with the crown prince coming instead.
That means Obama will likely meet only the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar, despite the prestigious invitation.
The White House had hoped the meeting would assuage deep unease over Iran talks, which Gulf states see as a Faustian bargain, and Obama’s perceived disengagement from the region.
Gulf officials had been pressing for the United States to supply advanced weapons like F-35 stealth fighters as well as a written security guarantee in the face of a threat from Iran.
“I think we are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region, given the rise of the extremist threat,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States.
“In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”
“I don’t believe there’s a single country (in the council) that doesn’t think a defense shield for the region is a bad idea,” Otaiba said. “The challenge is how do you turn on a regional defense system when different countries are purchasing different equipment and at different paces? How do you link it? How do you get the radars to talk to each other?”
A high-level Saudi official told The Associated Press in Riyadh that his country wants a defense system and military cooperation similar to what the US affords Israel.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to disclose details of the Saudis’ wish list at the summit, said they also want access to high-tech military equipment, missiles, planes and satellites, as well as more technology and training cooperation with the US.
The Iran nuclear deal — which could be agreed to in June — would curb Tehran’s nuclear program in return for unfreezing sanctions and funds worth more than $100 billion.
Gulf states fear that money could be used to by arms and further support Shiite proxy groups in the region.
A US official said a key part of the meetings would be to support a common Gulf defense infrastructure.
“This focus on mutual security extends to various areas -– counterterrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity and ballistic missile defense,” the official said.
Washington and the Gulf nations are also expected to discuss conflicts across the Middle East including in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Yemen in chaos
The Obama administration has privately pressed Saudi Arabia to ease an imprecise air campaign on Yemen that appears to have had a limited military impact but caused humanitarian suffering.
More than 1,400 people have been killed since late March in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Aid agencies have called for an immediate ceasefire in a statement signed by 17 organizations.
Salman said the Saudi-led air war was launched on Yemen to foil a plot by a “sectarian group” to undermine Middle East security.
He said the campaign prevented Yemen from becoming a “theater of terrorism.”
Officials also pointed out that missiles capable of reaching Saudi Arabia fell under the control of Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
After more than six weeks of Saudi-led air strikes, Yemeni rebels said they would respond “positively” to ceasefire efforts and their allies accepted a US-backed truce plan.
Riyadh has offered a five-day humanitarian truce from Tuesday evening. The country said its ceasefire offer is conditional on the rebels reciprocating and not exploiting it for military advantage.
But on Sunday, Saudi artillery responded to rocket fire from Yemen that wounded four women inside the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report