Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence / BROOKINGS
12 May 2015 – Brookings – King Salman’s decision not to come to Washington this week for the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) summit is a very deliberate signal of his lack of confidence in American policy in the Middle East. The Saudis are unhappy with U.S. policy toward Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They don’t want a public argument with the Obama administration (unlike Israel) but they want a very public display of their dissatisfaction.The timing of the decision, on the eve of the Camp David summit, is especially symbolic and intended to be embarrassing. Saudi sources are suggesting the summit was poorly prepared and lacked substantive deliverables. A reaffirmation of the Carter Doctrine of American support for the Gulf States is regarded as too little. More arms are too late. But the Saudis have known for weeks the constraints on Washington. They deliberately choose the last minute to cancel the king’s trip to send a potent signal.
At the heart of Saudi unhappiness is the Saudi fear that the nuclear deal between the P5 and Iran will lift sanctions and end Iran’s isolation. The Saudis, Emirates, and Bahrainis want Iran to be a permanent pariah under sanctions indefinitely. They are not worried about centrifuges; they are worried about subversion and intimidation. A rapprochement between the P5 and Iran leaves them dangerously exposed in their view.
The Saudis were also never comfortable with the format and venue of this summit. In Riyadh’s view the Gulf Cooperation Council is only theoretically a collection of equals— the kingdom is first among equals and should be recognized as such. Camp David is the scene of Anwar Sadat’s ‘betrayal’ of the Arab cause that led to the Saudi orchestrated ostracism of Egypt until Sadat’s assassination. It is not a symbol of peace to the Arab royals with long memories.
The Saudis also believe Washington is a halfhearted supporter of their war in Yemen. King Salman and his 29-year-old son, Defense Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, have invested all of their prestige and credibility in a decisive victory in Yemen. A truce is not what they want— the Houthis must be destroyed; Iran needs to be taught a lesson.
The Saudis smell blood in Syria, they hope Bashar Assad’s days are finally numbered. They want America to help finish the job, to help with the kill. Instead, they sense a deeply ambivalence in Washington. And in Iraq, the Saudis believe George Bush foolishly gave Baghdad to Tehran a decade ago, and Obama is not going to try hard to fight to get it back. It is unlikely that Obama will change his policy on any of these issues. So from the Saudi perspective, it is better to show dissatisfaction than to be in the photo-op the United States wants to spin as a sign of unity and agreement.
To underscore the royal snub, Riyadh told its client in Manama to keep their king at home as well. Bahrain is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the kingdom.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef will put on a pleasant face for the cameras this week. There will be no Netanyahu-like scolding of the president. That would be very unlike Saudis— publicly, they say there are no disagreements on any issue. They send their messages by not coming to the table, not by unseemly food fights.