President Barack Obama opened a summit with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies on Thursday, seeking to convince them of Washington’s commitment to their security despite deep concern among Arab leaders about US efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran.
Hosting the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at the Camp David presidential retreat, Obama faced the challenge of allaying their fears of US disengagement at a time of Middle East upheaval while also pressing the oil-rich Gulf states to work together in their own defense.
Tension over US policy toward Tehran, Syria’s civil war and the Arab Spring uprisings will loom over the meetings, which have already been clouded by the absence of most of the
Gulf’s ruling monarchs, who instead sent lower-level officials.
Saudi King Salman pulled out, sending Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his place in a move widely interpreted as a snub that reflected Gulf frustration with the Obama administration.
The White House has said such decisions were not intended as slights and has portrayed the summit as more than just a symbolic event. But US officials have also played down the prospects for any major breakthroughs.
White House officials have said there would no formal defense treaty, as some Gulf leaders sought, and that the summit is likely to produce more modest announcements on integrating ballistic missile defense systems, easing weapons deliveries and increasing joint military exercises.
After flying in by helicopter, Obama and the Gulf Sunni leaders sat at a long, rectangular table inside Camp David’s rustic cabin-like conference center for the first of three work sessions during the one-day summit.
Obama could be seen smiling and chatting with Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah when reporters were briefly allowed into the room. The president was scheduled to give a closing news conference at 5:00 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
Worries about emerging Iran deal
Sunni Arab leaders are concerned that lifting Western sanctions as part of a nuclear deal with Shia Iran would empower Tehran to act in further destabilizing the region, especially in volatile countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
Adding weight to those concerns, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy fired warning shots over a Singapore-flagged cargo vessel in international waters in the Gulf on Thursday, prompting the cargo vessel to flee into United Arab Emirates’ territorial waters, according to US officials.
The United States and five other world powers are in talks with Tehran to curb its atomic program. The Obama administration would like GCC support, or at least a toning-down of any criticism, for the deal to help convince a skeptical US Congress it has broad backing in the region.
Although he will not offer a formal security pact, Obama will seek to ease Gulf leaders’ fears about the US commitment to their defense needs.
“That will be the essence of the conversations: What can we do to modernize and deepen that security cooperation?” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Wednesday.
“And much of what the president has in mind is helping the GCC countries use the hardware that they have to better coordinate their efforts and better provide for the security of their citizens.”