Saudi King Salman skips Obama summit

Saudi King Salman skips Obama summit
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.

WASHINGTON - Newly crowned Saudi King Salman has refused an invitation to attend a landmark summit hosted by President Barack Obama, amid angst over US-Iran nuclear negotiations.

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.

Obama's plans now lie in tatters, with only two heads of state slated to attend the Thursday meeting.

Saudi Arabia's embassy in Washington said Sunday that newly-named Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would instead lead the Saudi delegation to the meeting.

The king's youthful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- who is tipped as a possible future successor and who has driven recent military operations in Yemen -- will also attend.

Even before becoming king, Salman was rumored to be suffering from dementia, and his son and the now crown price have played oversized roles in Saudi foreign policy.

As late as Friday, US officials said they had expected Salman to come to Washington, before learning of the change in plan.

"This is not in response to any substantive issue," insisted one senior US administration official.

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

That means Obama will likely meet only the leaders of Kuwait and Qatar, despite the prestigious invitation.

The White House had hoped the meeting would assuage deep unease over Iran talks, which Gulf states see as a Faustian bargain, and Obama's perceived disengagement from the region.

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

The Iran nuclear deal -- which could be agreed in June -- would curb Tehran's nuclear programme in return for unfreezing sanctions and funds worth more than $100 billion (S$133 billion).

Gulf states fear that money could be used to by arms and further support Shiite proxy groups in the region.

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 defence," the official said.

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