Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that its new monarch, King Salman, would not be attending meetings at the White House with President Obama or a summit gathering at Camp David this week, in an apparent signal of its continued displeasure with the administration over United States relations with Iran, its rising regional adversary.
As recently as Friday, the White House said that King Salman would be coming to “resume consultations on a wide range of regional and bilateral issues,” according to Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
But on Sunday, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said that the king would instead send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister. The agency said the summit meeting would overlap with afive-day cease-fire in Yemen that is scheduled to start on Tuesday to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Arab officials said they viewed the king’s failure to attend the meeting as a sign of disappointment with what the White House was willing to offer at the summit meeting as reassurance that the United States would back its Arab allies against a rising Iran.
King Salman is expected to call Mr. Obama on Monday to talk about his last-minute decision not to attend the summit meeting, a senior administration official said on Sunday.
The official said that when the king met Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh last week, he indicated that he was looking forward to coming to the meeting. But on Friday night, after the White House put out a statement saying Mr. Obama would be meeting with King Salman in Washington, administration officials received a call from the Saudi foreign minister that the king would not be coming after all.
There was “no expression of disappointment” from the Saudis, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “If one wants to snub you, they let you know it in different ways,” the official said.
Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said King Salman’s absence was both a blessing and a snub. “It holds within it a hidden opportunity,” he said, “because senior U.S. officials will have an unusual opportunity to take the measure of Mohammed bin Salman, the very young Saudi defense minister and deputy crown prince, with whom few have any experience.”
But, Mr. Alterman added: “For the White House though, it sends an unmistakable signal when a close partner essentially says he has better things to do than go to Camp David with the president, just a few days after the White House announced he’d have a private meeting before everything got underway.”
Mr. Kerry met on Friday in Paris with his counterparts from the Arab nations that were invited to the summit meeting — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman — to discuss what they were expecting from the summit meeting, and to signal what the United States was prepared to offer at Camp David.
But administration officials said that the Arab officials had pressed for a defense treaty with the United States pledging to defend them if they came under external attack. But that was always going to be difficult, as such treaties — similar to what the United States has with Japan — must be ratified by Congress.
Instead Mr. Obama is prepared to offer a presidential statement, one administration official said, which is not as binding and which future presidents may not have to honor.
The Arab nations are also angry, officials and experts said, about comments Mr. Obama recently made in an interview with The New York Times, in which he said allies like Saudi Arabia should be worried about internal threats — “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
At a time when American officials were supposed to be reassuring those same countries that the United States would support them, the comments were viewed by officials in the gulf as poorly timed, foreign policy experts said.
The Arab countries would also like to buy more weapons from the United States, but that also faces a big obstacle — maintaining Israel’s military edge. The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations, in an effort to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region.
That is why, for instance, the administration has not allowed Lockheed Martin to sell the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal, to Arab countries. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been approved for sale to Israel.
In Paris on Friday, Mr. Kerry said that the United States and its Arab allies, which constitute the Gulf Cooperation Council, were “fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create between the U.S. and G.C.C. a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.”
The king is the latest top Arab official who will not be attending the summit meeting for delegations from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The United Arab Emirates is also sending its crown prince to the meetings, the officials said. The Emirati president, Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, was never expected to attend because of health reasons, American and Arab officials said. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman also will not be attending because of health reasons, officials said.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, declined to say exactly what his government was pushing for from the United States when he spoke at a conference in Washington on Thursday.
“The last thing I want to say is ‘here’s what we need,’ ” he said at a panel discussion sponsored by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “That’s not the right approach. The approach is, let’s come here, let’s figure out what the problems are, how we can work together to address our needs.”
King Salman’s decision to skip the summit meeting does not mean that the Saudis are giving up on the United States — they do not have many other options, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “As upset as the Saudis are, they don’t really have a viable alternative strategic partnership in Moscow or Beijing,” Mr. Sadjadpour said.
But, he added, “there’s a growing perception at the White House that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are friends but not allies, while the U.S. and Iran are allies but not friends.”