Out of a pack of six, two will make less than half. Unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama’s long-awaited summit with the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states at the White House and the Camp David retreat starting Wednesday is already in some trouble with only the monarchs of Kuwait and Qatar showing up and the other four – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman – pleading inability.
Obama’s detractors will have a field day claiming he’s been “snubbed” by the Persian Gulf rulers and that the snub underscores the tragic fall in the US’ prestige and influence in the Middle East region under Obama’s watch as president. But it is an unkind cut. Most certainly, there was a time when the President of the United States would have expected one hundred percent acceptance when he sent out invitations for a meeting. But times have changed. The “unipolar moment” has gone forever.
But, more seriously, on closer examination, things need not look so bad. If the rulers of Oman and the UAE are unable to travel, it is for genuine health reasons that are only too well-known. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman returned home only in March after a prolonged stay of several months in Germany undergoing medical treatment. The President of the UAE Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is still recovering from a stroke he suffered a month ago.
Really speaking, the intriguing part narrows down to the last-minute decision (on Sunday afternoon) by the Saudi ruler King Salman bin Abdulaziz to depute the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef [MbN] to represent him at the summit with Obama. The explanation given is that the 5-day ceasefire in Yemen demands his presence at home. But that doesn’t seem credible. In fact, the defence minister Mohammed bin Salman [MbS] will be accompanying MbN, although Yemen is still burning.
But then, there is another way of looking at it. The 80-year old king is not in the best of health, given to forgetfulness and loss of memory and is credited with a short attention span, and he may have decided wisely that the upcoming 2-day summit is far too crucial an event for him to risk.
Besides, it makes great sense to depute MbN and MbS who are the real power centres in Saudi Arabia today. MbM is also extremely well connected with the US political and security establishment, including Obama himself. In fact, Saudi Arabia is best represented in the present circumstances by MbN (with MbS by his side) at such a high-stakes summit of profound consequence to the transformative politics of the Middle East, which impact Saudi Arabia’s vital interests.
The point is, this is an unusual summit; it is not about pageantry and symbolism or guest list, but it is an event with a substantive agenda where serious negotiations are expected to take place. If Obama’s original idea in holding such a summitry was limited to winning quiet acquiescence for his nuclear talks with Iran, the agenda has since expanded and many contentious issues have crept in devolving upon a new balance of power in the region that is struggling to be born in the downstream of the lifting of sanctions against Iran.
The conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, security guarantees from the US, the future trajectory of US-Iranian rapprochement, the varying perceptions of the GCC states and the US regarding Iran’s true intentions – all these issues are expected to figure at the summit. Neither Obama nor the Gulf Arab rulers can afford the summit to fail. But a “win-win” magic formula is virtually impossible to reach, either.
Did Obama miscalculate? A prudent course might have been to host a summit in July or August after the signing of a nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran. The upcoming summit on Wednesday is far too presumptuous, since Iran is not even attending it, while the conversation at the White House and Camp David is all going to be about Iran one way or another.
Again, Obama could have thought of a bigger summit involving the 5 other world powers as well who are also stakeholders in their own way in the success of the unfolding process of Iran’s integration with the international community.
The US seems to assume blithely that it is still within its sole capacity to choreograph a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf. Whereas, new players have appeared on the horizon. Indeed, the design of an enduring regional entente in any part of the Middle East is a challenging enterprise and it is best addressed by involving Russia and China, in particular. An FT write-up on the crosscurrents buffeting Obama’s summit is here.