In a sign of American influence waning in the middle east, newly appointed Saudi King Salman decided on Saturday not to attend a U.S. summit this week at Camp David.
But its not just the Saudi King who can’t make it – most Gulf heads of state won’t be there either.
The absences are a major blow to White House authority in the region and almost certainly reflect dissatisfaction among six-member Gulf Cooperation Council with Washington’s handling of Iran.
By not attending the leaders seem to be indicating they expected little to come from what was supposed to be a high level summit.
The ostensible reason for reason for King Salman’s absence was because the Thursday summit coincides with a humanitarian cease-fire in the conflict in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is intensely bombing Shiite rebels known as Houthis, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Instead, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, will lead the Saudi delegation and the king’s son, Deputy Crown Prince and defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, will also attend.
President Barack Obama had planned to meet King Salman one-on-one a day before the gathering so his absence is likely a sign of a substantial disagreement with the United States, despite the White House insisting otherwise.
The king, who took power in January, hasn’t traveled abroad since his ascension to the throne.
Bahrain, whose leadership has close ties to the Saudis and is an important military ally of the U.S., also announced their leader would not attend. He was replaced by crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Bahrain is Washington’s main naval counterbalance to Iran, and is the longstanding host to the Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The Gulf states are deeply concerned the nuclear pact taking shape with the U.S., Iran and other nations may lead Tehran to intrude more aggressively in the region. Iran is already backing Houthi rebels, essentially making Yemen a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at Emirates University, said Gulf leaders were obviously showing their displeasure with the U.S. initiative, which may be driven more by Obama’s urge to define his legacy than what’s best for the region.
“I don’t think they have a deep respect, a deep trust for Obama and his promises. There is a fundamental difference between his vision of post-nuclear-deal Iran and their vision,” he said. “They think Iran is a destabilizing force and will remain so, probably even more, if the sanctions are lifted. … They’re just not seeing things eye to eye.”
Also not in attendance is the sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, and the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Both have been battling health issues.