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World Gulf States summit a test of relations between U.S. and Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the start of a bilateral meeting at Erga Palace in Riyadh, in this January 27, 2015 file photo.

JIM BOURG/REUTERS

A two-day summit of Gulf States and the United States opens Wednesday at the White House and Camp David amid grumbling of a crisis in relations between the Obama administration and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Concern erupted when it became known this week that King Salman bin Abdulazaz, on the Saudi throne for barely four months, was giving the high-level talks a miss. Analysts were quick to call the decision a "snub" and point to grave differences between the two administrations, principally over Iran.

But it is to smooth over those very differences that U.S. President Barack Obama called for the summit in the first place. Washington is keen to conclude a nuclear treaty with Iran, while Saudi Arabia worries that the agreement will not prevent what it sees as Tehran's grand designs for the region.

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The fact that Saudi Arabia is represented by its Crown Prince and powerful Minister of the Interior, Mohammed bin Nayef, as well as by the Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence, Mohammed bin Salman (son of King Salman), should be just fine with Washington. After all, these two princes will be governing Saudi Arabia soon and for a very long time.

That doesn't mean that Washington-Riyadh relations are problem-free. There's been coolness between the two capitals ever since Mr. Obama sided with the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-democracy forces during the 2011 Arab popular uprisings in the Arab world. The autocratic House of Saud weathered that populist storm, but has never completely trusted the U.S. administration since then.

Viewing the creeping influence of Shia Iran – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – as the greatest threat to Sunni Saudi Arabia's interests in the region, King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sought to draw a line against what they called Iranian aggression in Yemen. But because of their distrust of the Obama administration, they kept Washington in the dark until the last moment. General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States, supposedly the Saudis' closest ally, only learned about the military operation against rebels in Yemen three hours before the attack began, when the U.S. military attaché in Riyadh was called in for a briefing.

Washington was quick to declare its support for the operation and to provide targeting intelligence to the Saudis, but "mostly to reduce collateral damage caused by erratic bombing," said Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence operative and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.

"The U.S. military was deeply skeptical deeply skeptical about the Saudi air bombardment from the outset," said Mr. Crooke, and "doubtful of the merits of a land invasion" that Saudi Arabia said was coming. "They [U.S. military commanders] viewed Yemen as a muddy quagmire, into which Saudi Arabia was risking to plunge its boots."

Even the Saudis' vaunted efforts to form a coalition force had setbacks. Pakistan's parliament voted unanimously against sending troops to fight in Yemen despite the large-scale financial assistance Saudi Arabia provides Pakistan. Egypt, too, though it has dispatched ships to the area, declined to provide soldiers for the Saudi cause.

Worried that its Saudi ally is making an enormous mistake, Washington has turned its attention to bringing about a ceasefire in Yemen to limit the damage. The latest attempt at such a truce went into effect at 11 p.m. Tuesday and is to last five days.

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Much like Israel, Saudi Arabia worries not just that the upcoming nuclear deal will allow Iran to continue to develop nuclear weapons, but that it also will let Tehran support various sectarian groups throughout the region.

The answer to Saudi Arabia's prayers is to draw the line against Iran in Syria, to have the United States and others support Islamist forces fighting against the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. The trouble is, some of those Islamist forces are linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, groups the United States and its allies are sworn to destroy.

The U.S. answer, on the other hand, is a transformative approach: to bring Iran in from the cold and give it a stake in peaceful relations with its neighbours and with the big powers, to reward it for meeting its commitments under a new nuclear treaty.

Indeed, not all the Gulf States share the Saudi view. Oman, in particular, which borders on Yemen, has good relations with Iran, another close neighbour. Qatar and Kuwait also have better relations with Iran than do the Saudis, Bahrainis and the United Arab Emirates.

"Saudi Arabia is acting in a very uncharacteristic way, bordering on drunk driving," observed Bruce Riedel, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Both King Salman and his son see the "Yemen war as their signature issue," he said this week. "It does not look like it will have a happy ending."

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