Saudi King Skips Summit

It’s hard not to read a strong message in the Saudi king’s last-minute decisions this past weekend. He declined a private meeting with President Obama at the White House, and also to join a summit at the president’s private retreat at Camp David. A consensus has been emerging that this is a snub, and it is hard to see it otherwise. After all, the whole idea of taking a group of Gulf leaders to Camp David was to personalize the experience more and to allow the president to deepen his relationships with an important group who feel a certain distance from him.

But in all the discussion of the snub, two things have been overlooked. The first is that there seems to have been a problem of interpretation on the U.S. side. After all, the White House announced late last week that the king would have a private meeting with the president before the larger meeting got underway, only to learn later that the king wouldn’t be coming after all. While it’s possible that the king changed his mind, what’s more likely is that the Saudi side felt it never fully committed, while the U.S. side felt it had. If that’s the case, it’s another in a series of instances in which each side hears what the other side is saying but seems not to understand fully what the other side is saying. Many professional interpreters bristle at the title of “translator,” explaining that their job is not just to put the words in a different language, but to capture their meaning as well. It feels like somewhere along the way here, some meaning has been lost. That this error came after extensive face-to-face meetings between the secretary of state and the Saudi leadership makes it more important.

The second thing is this seems to fit into a pattern whereby people seem to feel they can defy the president with impunity. We’ve seen this behavior in Congress, we’ve seen it in the Israeli Prime Minister and now we’re seeing it in the Saudi King. Everyone follows the news. While some of the president’s opponents revel in his problems, perceptions of the president pose serious challenges for U.S. national security. Where this all comes full circle is with Gulf Arab leaders’ concern that Iran’s leadership, too, could defy this president with impunity. To Gulf leaders relying on U.S. security guarantees, it is a disturbing prospect.

The good news is that both problems can be fixed. The bad news is neither problem can be fixed immediately. The important question is whether these problems have been recognized.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program