What King Salman’s Snub Means For Barack Obama

It’s hard to build a relationship if you don’t meet in person

Saudi King Salman walks alongside US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama after the Obamas arrived on Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on January 27, 2015.
National Journal
May 11, 2015, 9:43 a.m.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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