King Salman of Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the United States, will not attend a summit this week at Camp David called to address security concerns among Persian Gulf nations about a potential nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudi foreign minister said Sunday.
In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir attributed Salman’s decision to skip Thursday’s summit to the five-day cease-fire in the bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen, slated to begin Tuesday night.
American officials said the king’s absence at the summit did not signal any displeasure with security assurances the United States is preparing to offer the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David.
But the Saudi announcement represented an abrupt about-face and came as a surprise after Secretary of State John F. Kerry was assured of the king’s attendance when he met with Saudi officials last week in Riyadh and Paris. As recently as Friday, when Kerry and Jubeir jointly announced the cease-fire in Riyadh, Salman was expected to lead the Saudi delegation to Camp David.
A senior administration official said that Jubeir confirmed to Kerry on Friday afternoon in Paris that Salman was coming to Washington and that the king had ended his meeting with Kerry on Thursday in Riyadh saying, “I’ll see you next week.”
A senior State Department official said the Saudis notified them of a possible change of plans Friday night. On Saturday, the Saudis confirmed that the king would not be coming, the official said.
The official denied that the king’s decision to stay home was a brushoff. “There is zero tension,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment openly about the summit preparations. “In fact, the relationship is as strong as it has been in quite some time. Our understanding is that the Saudis and other GCC leaders are quite pleased with U.S. positions and the substance of Camp David, including any assistance we are going to provide.”
A person close to the Saudi government, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the decision was a combination of the situation in Yemen and what is to be the “technical nature” of the conversations about Iran at the summit, which the king felt the senior officials in the delegation, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and including Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were better equipped to handle.
“They did not mean it as a snub,” the person close to the Saudi government said. “They were not trying to send a message.”
Another senior administration official said Washington and Riyadh had worked closely to coordinate the timing of the announcement.
“We look forward to the attendance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, with whom the President has met on several occasions, including in the Oval Office in December 2014 and January 2013, as well as Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the president met when he traveled to Riyadh in January,” the official said.
Still, the sudden change of plans, and the king’s disinclination to come to an intimate setting like Camp David, gave the appearance of Saudi displeasure.
“The president was opening up his private retreat to leaders who felt he didn’t have their back, and he was going to make a personal connection with them,” Jon B. Alterman, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by e-mail. “. . . It suggests disappointment at minimum, and perhaps underlying anger that the president doesn’t understand their position and doesn’t want to.”
Jean-Francois Seznec, who teaches gulf politics at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Mohammed bin Nayef representing the kingdom “only underlines that he is really the strong person in the country just now.”
“In other words, I do not think this is a snub,” Seznec added. “I think on the other hand that it is a proof that the Saudis want substantive talks.”
The Saudi announcement reduced to two the heads of state of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council who plan to attend. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates has been in ill health and will be represented by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman has also been ill for some time and will be represented by the Omani prime minister.
This weekend, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Kuwait also said he would be represented by that country’s crown prince.
Among the Persian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has expressed the most concern over Iran’s spreading influence in the region. A Saudi-led coalition has been conducting air strikes against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Saudi officials have said they think the Iranians are the Houthis’ primary backers.
On Friday, Jubeir declined to provide details about what assurances the Saudis were seeking, though they are believed to want written guarantees and to be allowed to purchase advanced weapons systems.
Kerry spoke only vaguely of what the United States is prepared to offer, saying the talks Friday involved “fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create between the U.S. and GCC a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.”
The gulf countries have been wary about the nuclear talks underway between the United States and five other world powers. The talks are in their final stage, aiming toward a deal that would curb Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions. The concern in the gulf states, which are Sunni, is that Iran would use the infusion of cash that would accompany an easing of sanctions to expand its influence in the region even further. The talks face a deadline of June 30.
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.