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Saudi king, most Gulf leaders to skip landmark US summit

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Royal Court in Riyadh, on May 7.
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Royal Court in Riyadh, on May 7. Andrew Harnik, AFP

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and leaders from three other Gulf states have cancelled plans to attend a landmark US-Gulf summit hosted by President Barack Obama this week amid persistent concerns in the region over US nuclear talks with Iran.


Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced that newly named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would represent the world's top oil exporter at the summit, which US sources say will focus on military cooperation.

The king’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will also attend.

In a statement from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, Jubeir said the king deputised the crown prince to attend "due to the timing of the summit, the scheduled humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen and the opening of the King Salman Center for Humanitarian Aid".

Obama had invited six Gulf kings, emirs and sultans to the presidential retreat at Camp David, seeking to shore up wavering trust while Washington negotiates with regional power Tehran.

The cancellations mean that Obama will likely only be meeting the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos has been ill, and diplomats said Muscat will be represented by the deputy prime minister.

United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is also unwell and has not appeared in public since having an operation after a stroke last year. Instead, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan will attend, according to diplomats.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa will also miss the meeting, officials indicated Sunday, with the crown prince coming instead.

Even before becoming king in January Salman was rumoured to be ill, although Saudi Arabia has denied the claims. His son and the new crown prince have since played significant roles in Saudi foreign policy.

As late as Friday US officials had said they expected Salman to come to Washington.

"This (decision) is not in response to any substantive issue," said one senior US administration official.

Unease in the Gulf over Iran

The White House had hoped the meeting would assuage deep unease in the region over US nuclear talks with Iran and Obama's perceived disengagement from the Middle East.

Gulf officials have been pressing for the US to supply advanced weapons like F-35 stealth fighters as well as a written security guarantee in the face of any threat from Iran.

The Iran nuclear deal – which could be agreed in June – would curb Tehran's nuclear program in return for unfreezing sanctions and funds worth more than $100 billion.

Gulf states fear that the money could be used to buy arms and boost support for Shiite proxy groups in the region such as the Houthis in Yemen.

A US official said a key part of the meetings would be to support a common Gulf defence infrastructure.

"This focus on mutual security extends to various areas – counterterrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity and ballistic missile defense," the official said.

Washington and the Gulf nations are also expected to discuss conflicts across the Middle East including in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

The Obama administration has privately pressed Saudi Arabia to ease its Yemen air campaign, which appears to have had a limited military effect against the Houthis but has caused great humanitarian suffering.

More than 1,400 people have been killed since late March in the conflict, according to the United Nations, and 17 aid agencies have issued a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The Houthis have accepted Riyadh's offer of a five-day humanitarian truce from 8pm (GMT) on Tuesday. 

Salman said the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen was launched in order to foil a plot by a "sectarian group" to undermine Middle East security and prevent the country from becoming a "theatre of terrorism".

Officials have also pointed out that missiles capable of reaching Saudi Arabia have fallen under the control of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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