As Deal With Iran Looms, Obama Tries to Shore Up Arab Alliance

saudi arabia
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, walks with Saudi Arabia's King Salman to a meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh in January. Jim Bourg/Reuters

Updated | It was a private meeting and one that ultimately remade the Middle East. On Valentine's Day in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt played host aboard a U.S cruiser anchored in the Suez Canal. Meeting him on the ship was Saudi King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the tribal chieftain who conquered his rivals and unified them under the family flag. It was Abdel Aziz's first trip outside his new desert kingdom and he brought along eight sheep to be slaughtered for his meals.

Dressed in Bedouin robes, Abdel Aziz spoke through an interpreter to the ailing Roosevelt, who was wrapped in a blanket, about a range of issues as the second World War came to a close. Roosevelt proposed creating a homeland in British-ruled Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust—an idea that Abdel Aziz strongly opposed. Eventually, however, they arrived at an agreement: The U.S. pledged protection for Saudi Arabia in exchange for its oil and political support. In the years that followed, Washington reached similar arrangements with the other oil-rich Arab nations in the Persian Gulf.

Today, those arrangements are being tested as never before. Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, is expanding its influence into the Middle East's Sunni heartlands, stoking sectarian fighting along an arch that runs through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. As President Barack Obama pursues a nuclear agreement with Tehran, jittery Gulf Arab states want fresh security guarantees from him—this time in writing—as well as more missile batteries and fighter jets in return for their support for any deal with their Shiite rivals. Arab officials tell Newsweek those demands will be on the table on May 13 and 14 as Obama tries to soothe their anxieties at a high-stakes summit at Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in Maryland, where the president will meet with leaders and top officials of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

“We are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region,” UAE Ambassador Youssef Al Otaiba said Thursday. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”

Obama invited the Arab leaders to Camp David last month after the United States and five major powers reached a framework nuclear deal, giving themselves a June 30 deadline to reach a final accord. Obama later said he would seek ways to formalize U.S. security arrangements with the Arab countries, which make up a regional organization called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since then, U.S. officials have been listening to various GCC proposals, but the administration has provided few details about what they’re willing to offer.

In a major diplomatic snub, Saudi Arabia announced Sunday that King Salman, the most powerful of the GCC's six rulers, would not attend the summit and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef would lead the Saudi delegation, which also will include the king's son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In a statement from Riyadh, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said King Salman decided to tend to the ceasefire in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading a relentless air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents.

The monarchs of Qatar and and Kuwait will be the only Gulf leaders attending the summit. Sultan Quboos of Oman and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, won't be attending for health reasons, and Bahrain also announced Sunday that King Hamad would send the country's crown prince in his place. All of those countries will send high-ranking delegations in place of their leaders. 

Obama administration officials on Monday played down the significance of the Saudi king's absence, noting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was authorized to speak for Salman. But by reversing an earlier decision to attend the summit, Salman appeared to be signaling his continued skepticism over the Iran negotiations, as well as the security guarantees that Obama might offer Gulf allies.

Arab officials have proposed various security guarantees, ranging from a NATO-like defense treaty between the U.S. and the Arab states, in which an attack on any member would require Washington to come to its aid, to less formal guarantees to be outlined in a letter from the president. Analysts say any formal treaty would require Senate ratification. And that could create problems for lawmakers concerned that a pact, with its attendant arms sales, could affect Israel's security.

But analysts also say that Arab anxieties about Iran are real and that at the very least, Obama will have to specify the circumstances in which the United States would confront Tehran on the battlefield. They caution that Washington will also have to give Arab leaders rock-solid assurances that the United States will have their backs in any armed confrontation with Iran.

Martin Indyk, whose diplomatic career has included a stint as the White House Middle East adviser, says an Iran nuclear deal is likely to increase tensions in the region, at least initially. In the short-term, lifting sanctions will replenish Iran's coffers and could help fuel its support for proxies such as Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. “That's why the strategic reassurance is necessary,” says Indyk, now vice president of the Brookings Institution. “And that's why this GCC summit is historic and represents a turning point.” Indyk says he would like to see Obama make a “formal, explicit defense commitment” to the Gulf states.

In the area of U.S. weapons purchases, some Gulf Arab leaders want Obama to sell them the next-generation F-35 fighter jet, which uses stealth technology to evade radar. But concerns in Congress about Israel's security also could affect such a sale. Israel is one of the allied countries that have been cleared to buy the F-35 when it becomes available in 2017. U.S. law stipulates that any weapons sales to Arab countries must not jeopardize Israel’s qualitative military edge over any combination of Arab foes, making F-35 sales to the Gulf states unlikely.

But U.S. officials say the administration is likely to approve the sale of more missile defenses to the Gulf states as part of an American push to establish an integrated, region-wide system to guard against Iranian attacks. The Gulf countries have already purchased and set up Raytheon's Patriot anti-missile system, as well as Lockheed Martin's Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, also know as THAAD.

The administration would like to see the Gulf states integrate their militaries—an effort that likely would require Arab leaders to form a working group led by the Pentagon. Rivalries among the Gulf nations torpedoed a 2013 U.S-led effort to knit together their radars, sensors and early warning networks. But an Arab official says the common threat posed by Iran has underscored the need to unite. “Militarily, we need to speak with one voice,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity under standard diplomatic protocol.

Of course, the summit won’t only consist of Arab demands. Obama has said he'll also insist that Gulf countries address their own internal challenges. In an April 5 interview with The New York Times, the president suggested that the greatest danger to their security comes not from a possible Iranian attack, but from rising anger among their citizens, stoked by the growing numbers of jobless youth and the lack of political outlets for their complaints. “That's a tough conversation to have,” Obama said, “but it's one we have to have.”

Arab officials are bracing for that talk, but as with the first U.S.-Saudi summit in 1945, they’re relieved the exchange will take place in a secluded locale, far removed from the prying eyes of the media. “It’s a conversation we welcome,” says the UAE’s Oteiba. “In private.”  

Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of Salman, the king of Saudi Arabia.