AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When you host a gathering of world leaders, you might expect the invitations would be nontransferable, but that's not the case this week. When President Obama hosts a summit at Camp David for leaders of the Persian Gulf countries, only two of the six invited leaders plan to attend. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced its king is staying home. The Saudis are sending a crown prince and the king's son in his place. The absence of the leaders could cast a cloud over the summit. It was designed to reassure Gulf countries nervous about U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: As late as last Friday, the White House was putting out the welcome mat for Saudi Arabia's King Salman. A White House spokesman announced the president would meet privately with the king on the eve of the Camp David summit. But just 48 hours later, it seemed the Saudis had abruptly shifted gears. To Jon Alterman, who heads the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the signal was crystal clear.
JON ALTERMAN: The president was trying to reach out and make this very personal, opening up his personal family retreat. And one of the president's most important partners in the Middle East, at the last minute - I don't think I can make that. And that, I think, sends a signal about the level of connection that the king feels and something about what he thinks about the president.
HORSLEY: The administration is downplaying the diplomatic dustup. White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the whole purpose of the summit is to forge a stronger security partnership with the Gulf countries, and he says Saudi Arabia's crown prince and deputy crown prince, who are coming in the king's place, are perfectly capable of doing that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSH EARNEST: I know that there have been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to send a message to the United States. If so, that message was not received.
HORSLEY: The administration's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia is equally untroubled. Speaking by telephone from Riyadh, Jim Smith says it's understandable the king wants to stay in Saudi Arabia during an upcoming five-day cease-fire in the conflict with neighboring Yemen.
JIM SMITH: I'm convinced the decision process had nothing to do with snubbing the United States. It had everything to do with responsibilities at home which were fairly significant.
HORSLEY: President Obama organized this summit in hopes of calming the nerves of Gulf allies rattled by America's nuclear talks with Iran, a country they see as fomenting trouble in places like Syria and Lebanon. The U.S. is expected to underscore its support for the Gulf countries and possibly back that up with some news arms sales. But Middle East analyst Alterman says that's not likely to repair the fundamental rift. The Obama administration sees a possible nuclear deal with Iran as enhancing regional security while the Gulf allies simply don't.
ALTERMAN: The very strong view on the Gulf side is the Americans don't understand that the real threat is Iran's regional behavior, not the nuclear program.
HORSLEY: Alterman sees one silver lining in the Saudi king's boycott. It will give the Americans a chance to take the measure of his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Up until now, Alterman says, Americans haven't had a lot of contact with the youthful defense minister who has rapidly consolidated both military and economic power in the kingdom.
ALTERMAN: This summit provides an opportunity to see what he's like, to see how he responds to things, and the fact that his father won't be here will mean that he will have relatively more airtime.
HORSLEY: The ailing sultan of Oman and emir of the United Arab Emirates are also sending understudies to the summit, as is the king of Bahrain. The leaders of Kuwait and Qatar will attend in person. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.