President Obama is in the position of a high-school student who thinks that the cool kids are going to come to his birthday party and starts bragging about it around school, only to have his prized guests opt out at the last minute, leaving him looking considerably embarrassed. The guests in question are the leaders of America’s closest Gulf allies. They had been invited to a fence-mending summit at Camp David but only two—the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait—have accepted. All the others have suddenly discovered they have something else urgent to do that weekend. (Haircuts scheduled! Barbecues to attend!) Most embarrassing for Obama, as Jonathan Tobin noted earlier today, is that Saudi King Salman had at first accepted the invitation before declining it.
The administration spinmeisters can put a happy face on this all they want by claiming that they can still negotiate with the lower-level leaders the Gulf countries are sending but there is no doubt that this is a rebuke of the administration for putting Iran first. The Gulf leaders see the U.S. increasingly cozy with the rulers in Tehran, whose imperial designs they regard as a mortal danger, and they are not reticent about signaling their displeasure. Refusing to attend the Camp David summit is the least of it. Other actions that the Gulfies are taking are more serious—for example launching bombing campaigns against extremists in both Libya and, on a larger scale, in Yemen without asking for America’s permission or even bothering to notify us more than a few hours in advance.
As the New York Times notes, the Gulf states and in particular Saudi Arabia are manifesting their independence in other, even more disconcerting ways. For instance the hard-line King Salman is rethinking the opposition displayed by his more liberal predecessor, King Abdullah, toward the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly even toward more extreme and violent Salafists: “In Yemen, King Salman is working with Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood political party, and has warmed relations with Qatar, a backer of the Brotherhood. In March, he received Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Riyadh. The two agreed to work together to support the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, according to Yasin Aktay, the foreign relations chief for Turkey’s governing party. Although Mr. Aktay said that only moderate groups received support, many of Syria’s most effective fighters are staunch Islamists who often fight alongside the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, raising the possibility that aid might also empower extremists.”
Put another way, because the Obama administration is refusing to do anything to oust Bashar Assad, the Saudis are getting together with the Turks and Qataris to back some of the more fundamentalist Islamist fighters working against the Assad regime—including, it is rumored, the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate. This is what happens when the Gulf states lose confidence in America: they start taking matters into their own hands and that means they will increasingly forge a pact with extreme Islamists, possibly even with ISIS, because they see the extremists as the only reliable barrier to the spread of Iranian influence.
This is a catastrophic if wholly predictable development, and it is only the beginning of the fallout from Obama’s decision to align so closely with Tehran. The next step in the Sunni pushback is, as the Saudi leadership has loudly and long signaled, for them to acquire their own nuclear weapons. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Saudi Arabia is conveniently next to Jordan which has vast uranium reserves but no money to exploit them. The Saudis could easily fill that gap and develop their own nuclear capacity within a decade, the timeline of the Iranian nuclear deal. Or the Saudis could get nukes even sooner if their friends in Pakistan agree to provide them.
Nothing that President Obama will do or say at the Camp David summit can remotely offset this parlous trend. What America’s Arab allies are looking for is an American commitment to resist Iranian designs. Instead all they see is America standing aside while Iran threatens to dominate the region.
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