President Barack Obama’s summit with Arab leaders doesn’t seem to be going as planned.
First, King Salman of Saudi Arabia embarrassed the Obama administration when he backed out of the summit after the White House announced he was going to attend.
The last-minute move was widely perceived as a deliberate snub, and the Saudis offered only a vague excuse for King Salman’s absence.
Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman attended the talks in Salman’s place.
Obama then incorrectly introduced the deputy crown prince and misnamed the founder of the kingdom.
And while the summit kicked off in the US, King Salman met with princes and religious officials at his palace, including some of the most extreme clerics in the region.
Then came today’s big news: The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries intend to match Iran’s nuclear capacity if the US reaches a deal that allows some aspects of the country’s nuclear program, including uranium enrichment and ballistic missiles research, to continue.
One unnamed Arab leader who is participating in the talks told the Times that Sunni Arab countries “can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran [a Shiite regime] is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research.”
David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the group that publishes Foreign Policy magazine, weighed in on the implications of this, saying that Saudi Arabia’s expression of intent to match Iran’s nuclear development is a bigger blow to Obama’s summit than King Salman’s absence.
While the nuclear deal would allow international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities, many worry that Iran intends to eventually construct a nuclear weapon and would not hold up its end of the agreement.
Obama’s summit, which includes high-level officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain and is being held at the White House and Camp David, was designed to reassure Arab leaders that the US is still keeping their security in mind as negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program progress.
But so far, the talks don’t seem to be having their desired effect.
“My guess is that the summit is going to leave everybody feeling a little bit unsatisfied,” Jon Alterman, the Middle East director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press.
The rift between the US and Sunni Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, has gotten so wide that some leaders from the region may be counting the days until Obama is out of office.
Emile El Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told The Wall Street Journal: “They hope what they have is an Obama problem, not a US problem. They’re looking toward 2016.”
For his part, Obama seems intent on finalising the landmark deal with Iran while also assuaging the concerns of Gulf Arab leaders.
Deeper than nuclear negotiations
Other sources of strain between the US and Saudi Arabia that go beyond the US’ handling of the nuclear negotiations make that more difficult.
The US has been working in parallel with Iran-backed Shiite militias to help drive the Islamic State terror group out of Iraq. The US has also become less dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil, and this changing economic relationship has altered the relationship between the two allies.
The Saudis, in turn, are increasingly taking regional matters into their own hands. A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Houthi positions in Yemen in an effort to beat back forces that are aligned with Iran and Yemen’s former president, who was overthrown during the Arab Spring uprisings.
With Washington reorienting its policies in the region and with Riyadh feeling less constrained by its relationship with the US, Saudi Arabia could continue its assertive policies, enhancing its regional power and prestige.
As David Ottaway, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told Bloomberg: “We are witnessing the first real attempt to see whether Saudi Arabia can become the new military and political superpower of the Arab world. A younger generation of impatient Saudi hawks is coming to power that is fed up with the failure of the kingdom to project its military and political influence.”
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