The White House Monday defended the importance of a meeting this week between the United States and Arab countries at Camp David after the king of Saudi Arabia backed out at the last minute.
King Salman had officially accepted the White House invitation, but on late Friday the U.S. learned that Saudi Arabia, a key ally, planned to send lower-level emissaries instead.
“I know there had been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to sent a message to the United States,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “If so, that message was not received, because all the feedback that we’ve received from the Saudis has been positive.”
The king called Obama on Monday “to express his regret at not being able to travel to Washington this week,” the White House said late Monday. “The two leaders emphasized the strength of the two countries’ partnership, based on their shared interest and commitment to the stability and prosperity of the region, and agreed to continue our close consultations on a wide range of issues.”
Still, some say the change in plans was meant to signal displeasure with President Barack Obama over a nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran. Tehran and Riyadh are bitter rivals in the region.
“It certainly doesn’t look good,” said Simon Henderson, who studies the Gulf countries at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It looks as if they are snubbing and I think they are snubbing.”
Obama and representatives of the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council will meet Thursday to discuss a series of issues, including combating the Islamic State, the troublesome situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the deal struck by the U.S. and five other nations to limit Iran’s nuclear program. They will attend a dinner Wednesday at the White House.
Though the meeting is being billed as a summit – a meeting of top leaders – only two of the six Gulf counties will send their leaders, Qatar and Bahrain.
Two of the six nations – the United Arab Emirates and Oman – already had been expected to send others in their place because of health reasons. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan is sending Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said is sending the deputy prime minister.
Separately, Bahrain also said Sunday that it would send its crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
“We very much feel we have the right group of people around the table,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser.
The White House until Friday had expected King Salman to attend. Just last week, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi officials, including Salman, in Riyadh and Paris.
Salman, 79, took the throne upon the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah, in January, and within hours people were speculating he was in ill health.
Saudi Arabia announced Sunday in the state-run Saudi Press Agency that the king would send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister. It said the king had decided to stay in Saudi Arabia to oversee the five-day cease-fire in the bombing campaign against rebels in Yemen, which begins Tuesday.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that U.S. officials learned of the Saudis’ decisions late on Friday; counterparts in Riyadh confirmed it Saturday. Harf insisted that the Obama administration didn’t consider the move an insult – “nothing could be further from the truth.”
Harf dismissed the reports of chilly relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. She said that Kerry had enjoyed good talks with Salman and other Saudi officials during his recent trip to Riyadh.
The Gulf countries remain apprehensive about the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers that would curb Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
The Obama administration says the countries would benefit if Iran is prevented from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon, as Obama says. But leaders of the nations worry that Iran’s influence in the region would grow after the sanctions are lifted. Saudi Arabia has expressed the most concern.
The Obama administration has not indicated what assurances the U.S. may offer, and experts say it’s unclear if any specific and concrete results would be agreed upon.
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it’s unclear why heads of states were expected to attend a meeting not expected to produce significant results.
“Why should the king have come?” he said.
Hannah Allam in Washington contributed.