The Cable

Gulf Summit In Flux As Questions Emerge About Agenda and Attendance

The White House invited the heads of its closest allies in the Persian Gulf to Washington to reassure them about the emerging Iran deal. One week out, however, it’s not clear which Arab leaders will be coming -- and what, if anything, will actually emerge from the talks.

CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 19:  U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the conclusion of the G8 Summit on May 19, 2012 at Camp David, the presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland. The world's Group of Eight leading industrial nations (G8) discussed the debt crisis in Greece, the global economy and security issues regarding Iran. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
CAMP DAVID, MD - MAY 19: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the conclusion of the G8 Summit on May 19, 2012 at Camp David, the presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland. The world's Group of Eight leading industrial nations (G8) discussed the debt crisis in Greece, the global economy and security issues regarding Iran. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

The White House invited the heads of its closest allies in the Persian Gulf to Washington to reassure them about the emerging Iran deal. One week out, however, it’s not clear which Arab leaders will be coming — and what, if anything, will actually emerge from the talks.

On the agenda is a May 13-14 summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the loose-knit confederation of oil-rich U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Obama administration announced plans for the summit in April after securing a framework nuclear agreement with Iran that both Israel and the Gulf monarchies are skeptical of.

On Thursday, a U.S. official told Foreign Policy the White House had not yet confirmed the attendance of a number of key officials in the GCC — a union that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, will not attend the summit due to health reasons. The attendance of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud remains unknown. “It has not yet been announced who will be representing the kingdom at the summit,” said a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy. “Could be the king or his designee.”

If King Salman skips the summit, the absence of the heads of state of three of the six GCC members could be seen as a snub to the White House, which wants to reassure Arab states that a nuclear deal with Iran won’t threaten their security and to push the countries to collaborate on the construction of a missile defense shield designed to protect the entire Persian Gulf region.

That will be a hard sell for the White House, since Gulf states worry that the 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.

Washington’s response to these concerns is to offer the missile defense shield, but some Arab partners prefer a defense pact.

“We are looking [for some form of] security guarantee given the behavior of Iran in the region,” UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said at an Atlantic Council event in Washington on Thursday. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security … I think we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”

Washington, for its part, wants to avoid making ironclad security commitments that could force it to fight in a future conflict in a region marred by perpetual instability. As a result of these differences, there’s no consensus about what issue should dominate next week’s talks.

On Wednesday, U.S. officials unveiled plans to make a region-wide missile defense system in the Gulf a key objective of the gathering. The U.S. plan would seek to integrate the disparate militaries of the Gulf region into what would effectively be a single, unified system, fulfilling what has been an American priority for years.

Senior Pentagon officials, including former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright, had long called for creating a hub-and-spoke system under which radar arrays in individual Gulf countries would funnel telemetry data to a single command center in the region, which would relay it to nearby countries in the hopes that they could help shoot down the incoming projectile. To take one example, Saudi Arabia might detect an Iranian launch, but the nation that would attempt to shoot it down could be Qatar or Bahrain.

But on Thursday, Otaiba emphasized his desire for a U.S. security guarantee to the Gulf monarchies and downplayed the likelihood of any concrete progress on a collective missile defense shield.

“How do you turn on a regional defense system when different countries are purchasing different equipment at different paces?” he said. “How do you link it? How do you get the radars to talk to each other? How do you integrate six different defense systems into one?”

Much of the public posturing ahead of the summit is reflective of behind-the-scenes bargaining between Washington and Arab allies about what will be on offer in Camp David next week.

Many observers expect some form of statement committing the U.S. to the security of its Gulf allies. But the proclamation is unlikely to resemble anything akin to article five of the NATO Charter, which commits treaty members to come to the defense of a fellow pact country.

Instead, sources say, what’s most likely to come out of the summit is something far more modest: agreements on a series of new joint military exercises and arms sales. Washington is likely to withhold the sale of Lockheed’s next-generation F-35 fighter jet, which it has already promised to Israel to maintain Jerusalem’s qualitative military edge.

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