Asenior U.S. official said Monday the White House has rejected a proposal from Gulf nations to forge a common defense treaty with the United States. The revelation follows decisions by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain to skip a summit organized by the White House this week — a move perceived by some as a snub to President Barack Obama.
U.S. and Gulf officials insist the lackluster attendance for this week’s Camp David summit is not the latest symptom of bad blood that may exist between Washington and its Gulf allies. But key members of the Gulf Cooperation Council had lobbied hard for the U.S. to agree to a defense pact ahead of the summit.
“We need something in writing. We need something institutionalized,” UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba told a Washington conference last week.
In a Monday conference call, Robert Malley, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, told reporters that the U.S. informed Gulf allies “weeks ago” that a defense treaty “was not possible.”
Despite that disagreement, Malley insisted Gulf allies came away largely satisfied following a meeting in Paris last Friday that was attended by foreign ministers of the six GCC nations and the U.S. “Again, one of them reminded us that they would’ve liked a treaty, but beyond that there was no hint of dissatisfaction,” Malley said.
Hours later, the White House said that Saudi King Salman called Obama to “express his regret at not being able to travel to Washington this week.”
Last month, Obama invited GCC leaders to Washington after his administration secured a framework agreement with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. Gulf states worry that the potential deal — offering Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program — will provide Iran with an influx of cash to fund proxies and expand its regional ambitions in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon.
This week’s summit aimed to let the U.S. settle those nerves about the emerging deal and discuss regional security issues, including the takeover of Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that the country’s monarch, King Salman, would not attend the summit, even though White House officials told reporters on Friday that he would be there.
Saudi officials denied that his absence amounts to a snub, and said the last-minute decision by King Salman to stay in Riyadh reflected his desire to monitor the cease-fire scheduled to begin Tuesday between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes in the country. Omani and UAE officials cited health reasons for why their leaders could not attend the gathering.
Still, given the lack of star power at this week’s summit, expectations for a series of substantive breakthroughs between the parties are low.
During the White House conference call Monday, officials said a new announcement on joint military exercises was likely to come out of the meeting. But they stopped far short of confirming the summit would yield any big news or announcement for a new missile defense shield for the Sunni nations — a longtime U.S. priority in the region.
Despite that, regional experts have noted there are worse things than failing to come away with a major deliverable during a summit of Gulf monarchies, many of whom rank poorly when it comes to human rights, press freedoms, and corruption problems.
“I don’t think the U.S. should feel compelled to bend over backwards,” Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a roundtable of reporters on Monday. “I think we need to be very concerned about the reform angle.”
Washington also wants to avoid making ironclad security guarantees in a region marred by perpetual instability — a commitment that could force it to fight in a series of costly foreign conflicts.