CAMP DAVID: Barack Obama whisked six Gulf leaders away to his Camp David presidential retreat Thursday, for a fence-mending summit bedeviled by disagreements, royal no-shows and raging crises in the Middle East.
The bucolic Catoctin mountain getaway, synonymous with Middle East peacemaking during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, is once again a venue for attempts at 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 Washington’s long-standing allies.
To go through the details of nuclear talks with Iran, Obama brought along his secretaries of treasury, state, energy as well as CIA director – and former Riyadh station chief – John Brennan.
But it is the broader picture that worries those on the other side of the table.
The Gulf states believe the United States is not doing enough to prevent what they say is Iran’s fuelling of the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq that have thrown the Middle East into deep crisis.
The assembled leaders did not have to look hard for evidence of the seriousness of their task.
As Marine One touched down, it emerged that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had fired on a commercial ship off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, the Islamic State executed 26 civilians in Syria and – amid a shaky truce in Yemen – Sanaa recalled its envoy to Tehran.
On Wednesday, as a warm-up before 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 Saudi 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 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.