President Obama will welcome leaders from six Persian Gulf nations to Camp David Thursday, in a meeting aimed at strengthening security ties during a time of increasing political and sectarian strife in the Mideast.
While the gathering’s stature has suffered setbacks in recent days — both Saudi Arabia’s and Bahrain’s kings bowed out over the weekend — administration officials say it represents a meeting of key decision makers who help chart the region’s direction. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that for America and its Gulf partners the talks are designed to “deepen and strengthen their security relationship.”
But the Gulf states are seeking more specific outcomes than the general reassurance the administration plans to offer, including a containment policy to restrain Iran’s regional ambitions and an expanded U.S. role in directly aiding Syrian rebels.
Ilan Goldenberg, who directs the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, said in an interview that the Obama administration had spent much of its time in “crisis management” given the many conflicts in the region.
“You don’t have time to develop a strategy,” Goldberg said, adding that now the United States needs to demonstrate its focus on Gulf leaders’ concern that Iran remains a destabilizing force in countries ranging from Yemen to Syria. “The problem is you have to do some things to demonstrate to your partners that you care about their priorities.”
Obama formally received 15 top officials Wednesday night at the White House —all of whom arrived in gleaming black luxury vehicles -- before hosting a dinner for them there. The attendees included the emir of Qatar, Sheik Tameem bin Hamad al-Thani, and the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, along with senior officials from Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
During the private meal the president and his guests dined on lemon-scented local lamb with a citrus fondue and French beans, chanterelles and peanut potatoes, according to the White House. Dessert included coconut panna cotta, strawberry compote and pistachio brittle.
Earlier in the day, Obama held a bilateral meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef — who also serves as the nation’s interior minister — and its deputy crown prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman.
“I can say that, on a personal level, my work and the U.S. government’s work with these two individuals ... on counterterrorism issues has been absolutely critical not only to maintaining stability in the region but also protecting the American people,” the president told reporters. “And I want to thank them for their extraordinary support and hard work and coordination on our counterterrorism efforts.”
Speaking through an interpreter, bin Nayef touted “the strategic and historic relationship between our two countries.”
“This historic relationship we seek to strengthen and broaden and deepen with time,” he said. “Mr. President, you spoke about the situation in the region, and we look forward to, God willing, to working with you to overcome the challenges and to bring about calm and stability in the region.”
Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that King Salman would stay home in order to monitor a temporary cease-fire in Yemen, where his country has been waging an air campaign against the Houthis. That same day Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al -Khalifa announced he would not come to Washington; on Wednesday Bahrain confirmed that he would leave Thursday for Britain to attend a celebration in Windsor with Queen Elizabeth, where a royal horse show is taking place.
“His Majesty the King and Queen Elizabeth II will hold a meeting to review the longstanding mutual ties between both royal families in addition to the progress and development of bilateral relations and cooperation in various fields,” Bahrain’s government said in a statement. “The invitation to His Majesty the King from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II comes in view of the distinctive bilateral bonds.”
Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.