CAMP DAVID, Md.—Of the six Arab leaders invited to the summit, one was too busy, two called in sick, and a fourth skipped it to go to a horse show instead.
The Gulf Cooperation Council conference was nevertheless “the beginning of a new era of cooperation,” President Obama declared Thursday after a daylong series of meetings.
“I want to thank each of the leaders and delegations who attended. We approached our discussions in a spirit of mutual respect,” Obama said. “And here at Camp David, we decided to expand our partnership in several important and concrete ways.”
Obama laid out five points of agreement among all the countries, top among them a commitment by the United States to respond to an “external threat” to any of the nations’ territorial integrity, which could include the use of military force, as well as the development of a ballistic-missile defense for the Gulf nations. “And let me underscore, the United States keeps our commitments,” Obama said.
The president called for the gathering as a way of calming the Gulf nations’ worries shortly after the announcement of the framework of an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. But the GCC states pushed for a NATO-like mutual-defense alliance to counter Iran, which was much further than the Obama White House was willing to go.
That disagreement was followed by four of the countries’ leaders deciding that they couldn’t personally attend, after all. King Salman of Saudi Arabia cited the ongoing conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Two others cited health problems, while Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa skipped the Camp David meeting to attend a horse show in England with Queen Elizabeth II. Of the six nations, only the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar personally made the trip.
The emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, said afterward, according to a translation from Arabic by Al Jazeera: “There are many things that we agree with the friends here in America.”
White House officials downplayed the leaders’ decisions not to attend. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said those lower-ranking officials who did attend were precisely the ones immersed in security negotiations for their countries.
As to a mutual-defense pact, that was way beyond the scope of the meeting, Rhodes said. “A mutual-defense treaty is an entirely different type of arrangement,” he said. “It’s one that would take far more time to develop than the lead-up time to the summit and, frankly, would depend upon a meeting of the minds on a host of issues.”
Obama and representatives of the six GCC countries agreed to follow up with a second summit meeting next year.