You can debate whether Saudi Arabia is intentionally snubbing President Obama by skipping this week's Persian Gulf summit at Camp David. And the White House is aggressively making the case that there is no snub. But you can't debate whether King Salman's decision to stay in Riyadh is a major missed opportunity for Obama.
As recently as Friday, U.S. officials had counted on Saudi Arabia to be represented by King Salman and saw it as a great chance for the president to forge a personal relationship with the newly installed head of the most significant Arab partner in the region. Obama was to hold a one-on-one session with the king on Wednesday, the day before the summit was to convene at Camp David.
And it's hard to debate—even though the White House tried—that his absence, along with those of three other leaders, significantly diminishes a meeting that no longer seems like much of a summit.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest took direct aim at the notion of a snub. "I know there has been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to send a message to the United States. If so, that message was not received because all the feedback we have gotten has been positive."
Earnest also joked about the widespread reporting that the Saudi decision is a snub, calling that "the word of the day" at his daily briefing.
Refusing to see a clear message from Saudi Arabia, though, is a mistake, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The president tried very hard to personalize this meeting. It was not just meet at the White House, but come to my family retreat and we'll dress casually and talk as people"¦ And the king of Saudi Arabia said, 'No, I'm busy that day'." That, said Alterman, "sends a message."
The message, he said, is simple. "There is a fair amount of anger at this administration in the gulf. And people feel that this president doesn't get it and they are facing a serious threat and he doesn't understand it."
But U.S. officials disagree. Earnest fired back at the contention that the summit is no longer a big deal and has been diminished. "Not in the mind of the president and not in the mind of anybody here," he said, insisting the talks, which will begin with a Wednesday dinner at the White House will be "worthwhile." The goal, he added, "is for each of these countries to further strengthen the important security relationship they have with the United States."
On Thursday night, U.S. officials were confident King Salman would be coming. But that changed Friday when the Saudis sent word of the change of plans. On Saturday, according to U.S. officials, final confirmation was received. "We consulted closely with our Saudi partners on the alternate arrangements and timing of the announcement and look forward to welcoming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," said one official quoted by Fox News.
Earnest said the king's decision is "completely unrelated to the agenda" for the summit. But it is difficult to divorce the decision from the anxiety many of the Gulf countries feel about the U.S.-led negotiations with Iran. All the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council oppose Iranian efforts to spread its influence across the region and were seeking assurances at this summit of American steadfastness in supporting them.
In a statement issued by the Saudi Press Agency, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the king was staying at home because the five-day cease-fire in the Saudi bombing of Houthi rebels in Yemen is scheduled to begin Tuesday night.
Also missing the summit will be the leaders of Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, in most cases for health reasons. Both Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan of the UAE and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman have been ill for some time. Kuwait is sending its crown prince rather than King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. That leaves the president face-to-face at Camp David with only the top leaders of Qatar and Bahrain.
Earnest, who was clearly on the defensive at his daily briefing, insisted the White House is "confident" that "the right people will be attending." He cast the missing leaders as simply the fact that "the countries participating in the meeting have made decisions about who is best positioned to represent them."
For a president who often struggles to build personal ties with other world leaders, the absence of so many is a real blow. The whole point of the gathering was to show "that this is more than just business," said Alterman. "It is meant to generate images of people engaging informally."
It is particularly unfortunate because, as Alterman noted, "King Salman has only just become king, so it's not a long-standing relationship." The king took power Jan. 15.