It was the slight heard ‘round the world.
No one should have been surprised when Saudi Arabian King Salman declined to attend a meeting in which he would have joined President Barack Obama, given the tensions that presently characterize the bilateral relationship between the Saudi Kingdom and the United States. And yet, the diplomatic community clutched their chests and feigned surprise at the veiled protest. Others embraced a chauvinistic attitude and suggested the impertinent Saudis had acted above their station.
Regardless of its prudence, the message the Saudis sent to Washington was received loud and clear. “[S]ome Arab officials said his decision not to attend reflected a broader disappointment that Mr. Obama would not be offering much concrete security assistance at the meeting,” The New York Times reported. “The king was not the only one to turn down Mr. Obama’s invitation. The leaders of Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — some of whom are in ill health — will also skip the meeting, sending subordinates instead.”
It is no accident that these predominantly Sunni Muslim nations are also participants in the Saudi-led coalition (with the exception of Oman) that has been executing airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen – a group that the United States initially sought to help transition to power in Sana’a when Yemen’s pro-Western government began to teeter earlier this year. The Gulf Arab states are making plain their distaste for the Obama administration’s deference to their regional opponent, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This behavior does not require much decoding to decipher the intent.
If anyone was still confused about the aims of the Saudis and their allies, they’re making it quite explicit. “Persian Gulf leaders, set to convene at a Camp David summit this week, are pressing President Obama to strengthen the U.S. security relationship with the region and expand military assurances to address their growing concerns about Iran, U.S. and regional officials said,” The Washington Post revealed on Tuesday.
Senior officials from several gulf nations said they understand that a mutual defense alliance, similar to NATO, is not possible. At the very least, however, they want a firmer and more specific U.S. promise to protect them from external threats.
“In the past we have survived with a gentlemen’s agreement with the United States about security,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, ambassador to Washington for the United Arab Emirates, one of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries participating in the summit. “Today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”
The concerns of the Arab states are perfectly valid. The Obama administration has demonstrated clearly over the course of its tenure that they have no regard for America’s historic alliances, the United States’ long-term interests, or any discernable grand strategy. America’s word is no longer good. “Today, we need something in writing.”
The Gulf Arab states already sought a mutual defense pact with the United States that was rejected by this White House several weeks ago. In the absence of American security guarantees, the Gulf states will provide for their own defense. We are witnessing this regional transformation in real time, and it will have far-reaching implications.