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Obama bids to mend fences with Gulf royals at Camp David


US President, Barack Obama

US President, Barack Obama

Barack Obama was to whisk Gulf leaders away to his Camp David presidential retreat Thursday, hoping to salvage a fence-mending summit already bedeviled by disagreements and royal no-shows.

The bucolic Catoctin Mountain getaway, synonymous with Middle East peacemaking during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, will again be a venue for an attempted reconciliation.

President Obama faces the tough task of convincing assorted emirs, princes and sheikhs that his willingness to negotiate with their foe Iran does not represent a pivot away from long-standing allies.

On Wednesday, as a precursor to the meeting, Obama wooed two powerful Saudi princes to the Oval Office, where he lauded “an extraordinary friendship and relationship.”

“We are continuing to build that relationship during a very challenging time,” Obama said, a nod to conflagrations in Yemen, Syria and Iraq that have reverberated across the Middle East.

Obama praised guests Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their work on counterterrorism, which the US president described as “absolutely critical” to the United States.

But conspicuous in his absence at the White House was Saudi leader King Salman, who refused to attend, in what was widely seen as a diplomatic snub, despite Riyadh and Washington’s insistence it was not.

Five other Gulf leaders — but only two heads of state, those from Qatar and Kuwait — later arrived at the White House for a closed-door dinner and will also travel to Camp David.

Obama’s warm words belied deep Arab unease over his outreach to Iran, and the relationship was already strained by his quickness to welcome pro-democracy Arab Spring revolts and a reduced dependence on Gulf oil.

The Arab and largely Sunni Muslim states suspect Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran is a harbinger for a return to international respectability for their Persian and Shiite arch-foe.

The Gulf states will seek assurances that Obama is ready to push back against Iranian proxies, particularly in Syria where he has been reluctant to act, even if it causes turbulence in sensitive nuclear talks.

They will also want assurances the nuclear deal does not represent a broader “grand bargain” with Iran.

– ‘Tilt’ to Tehran? –

“What they fear, above all, is that, for one reason or another, American policy is beginning to tilt towards Tehran and away from traditional US allies in the region,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute.

Despite close ties stretching back decades, ultra-conservative Gulf monarchies and a country which brought the world Hollywood and rock and roll have never been easy allies.

Interests have often trumped ideology.

In 1980, in the wake of a crippling oil shock precipitated by Iran’s Islamic Revolution, President Carter pledged to come to the defense of vital oil-producing Gulf states.

That policy was made manifest a decade later when president George Bush sent troops to Kuwait when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Today the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain and a US military command center with substantial troops is stationed in Qatar.

But the Gulf states are now asking for the “Carter Doctrine” to be more than a “gentlemen’s agreement.”

With one eye on the $100 billion-plus windfall that Iran could receive when sanctions end and accounts are unfrozen, they would like to see a binding mutual defense treaty like that agreed between NATO members.

Such a pact would be difficult to pass through a pro-Israeli Congress, but in any case it is a non-starter for the White House, which sees asymmetric threats and internal unease at closed political systems as a greater security priority.

Rights advocates would like to see the White House push much harder for democratic reforms.

Forty-five members of Congress have written to Obama to “express deep and continuing concern” about the suppression of political and religious rights.

“Sustainable solutions to these regional challenges require that our allies respect fundamental human rights within their own borders,” the letter stated.

With reduced attendance and hoped-for deals on security and the sale of advanced US weapons like the F-35 stealth fighter in doubt, Obama will have to scramble to salvage the summit.

Officials will likely push for progress on ballistic missile defense, joint military exercises and cyber and maritime security initiatives.

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