international intrigue

Did Obama Just Get Snubbed by the King of Saudi Arabia?

President Obama and Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in March 2014, before he became king. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has invited the leaders of six Middle Eastern countries to a summit at Camp David this week, and on Sunday night Saudi Arabia’s King Salman announced that he won’t be attending. So did the U.S. just get a major snub from the new monarch? Maybe! With the Iranian nuclear deal set to be finalized on June 30, the meeting with the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman is meant to secure Arab support for the agreement. The six nations have signaled that they’re looking for assurances that the U.S. would come to their aid if they’re threatened by Iran. Some say King Salman’s move is meant to show that Saudi Arabia isn’t happy about the Obama administration’s thawing relationship with Iran, its regional adversary. However, a handful of officials on both sides are still insisting that King Salman’s decision to pull out of the meeting — days after Saudi officials told Secretary of State John Kerry he would be there — shouldn’t be seen as a slight.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington said that “due to the timing of the summit, the scheduled humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen and the opening of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid,” the king has decided not to come to the U.S.(A Saudi-led military coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.) Instead, he’s sending his two heirs, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister. The White House said on Friday that the Saudi king would have a private meeting with Obama before the start of the summit, and it’s unclear if the president will meet with the two Saudi ministers instead.

A senior State Department official told the Washington Post that the Saudis actually gave them a heads-up about the possible cancellation on Friday. “There is zero tension,” the official said. “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 source close to the Saudi government said that due to the “technical nature” of the talks about Iran, he felt it was more appropriate to send his top officials. “They did not mean it as a snub,” the Saudi source said. “They were not trying to send a message.”

However, an Arab official involved in discussions with the White House told The Wall Street Journal that the Saudis changed their plan because there hasn’t been enough progress on the issues where they differ with the U.S., and thus, “there isn’t substance for the summit.” A senior administration official told the New York Times that there was “no expression of disappointment” when the Saudis canceled, adding “If one wants to snub you, they let you know it in different ways.”

On Sunday Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isaa Al Khalifa said he won’t travel to Washington, either, and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman will not personally attend for health reasons. That means the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait will be the only two monarchs at the summit. According to a senior U.S. official, King Salman is set to call President Obama on Monday to talk about why he won’t be seeing him at Camp David. It’ll probably sound a lot like this — just replace some of the teen-girl backstabbing with talk of nuclear annihilation.

Did Obama Just Get Snubbed by the Saudi King?