US President Barack Obama hailed America’s “extraordinary friendship” with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, as he hosted skeptical Gulf leaders at the White House for a summit beset by disagreements and royal no-shows.
Describing “an extraordinary friendship and relationship that dates back to [US president] Franklin Roosevelt and King Faisal,” in the 1940s, Obama heaped praise on two powerful Saudi princes in the Oval Office.
“We are continuing to build that relationship during a very challenging time,” Obama said, adding that his counter-terrorism work with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was “absolutely critical” to the United States.
The Crown Prince also lauded the “great importance” of the “strategic and historic relationship between our two countries.”
But the warm words belied deep divisions over Iran’s role in the region and US security guarantees.
Conspicuous in his absence at the White House was Saudi leader King Salman, who refused to attend the summit, in what was widely seen as a diplomatic snub, despite Riyadh’s insistence it was not.
Five other Gulf leaders — but only two heads of state — are expected to arrive at the White House later in the day.
The Arab and largely Sunni Muslim states suspect Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is a harbinger of a bigger role for their Persian and Shiite arch-foe.
They will be seeking assurances from Obama that he is ready to push back against Iranian influence in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, even if it causes turbulence in sensitive nuclear talks.
They will also want assurances the nuclear deal does not represent a broader “grand bargain” with Iran.
“What they fear, above all, is that, for one reason or another, American policy is beginning to ’tilt’ toward Tehran and away from traditional US allies in the region,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Despite close ties stretching back decades, the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies have never been easy allies.
In 1980, in the wake of crippling oil shock prompted by Iran’s Islamic Revolution, President Jimmy Carter pledged to come to the defense of vital oil-producing Gulf states.
That policy was made manifest a decade later when president George Bush came to the defense of Kuwait when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Today the US fifth fleet is based in Bahrain and a US military command center with substantial troops is stationed in Qatar.
The Gulf states are now asking for the “Carter Doctrine” to be made binding in a mutual defense treaty link that agreed between NATO members.
That is a non-starter for the White House.
Since the “Carter Doctrine” was iterated, US dependence on Gulf oil has receded sharply as shale and alternative sources come on line.
And after the Arab Spring, President Obama has pointedly warned that closed Gulf monarchical systems must reform if they are to survive.
US officials stress that a threat to Gulf states is just as likely to come from revolt against unopened political systems or asymmetrical attacks on critical infrastructure.