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Ahead Of Summit, Gulf States Doubt America's Mideast Policies


President Obama was supposed to be hosting Saudi Arabia's new king at the White House today. Then, last week, King Salman canceled, which means he's also skipping tomorrow's summit of Gulf Arab leaders at Camp David. All sides insist it's not a snub, but as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the Gulf States are worried that the president's focus on a nuclear deal with Iran comes at their expense.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The decision by Saudi King Salman to skip this summit happened not long after Gulf ministers met with Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris. That tells Riad Kahwaji at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis that the gulf officials weren't impressed by what they heard, so the Saudi King is staying home and sending the crown prince.

RIAD KAHWAJI: It is a high-level delegation, but downgrading it, for me, sends some sort of a negative signal that the guy is not really liked much. In the meeting with Kerry, they still have concerns that the U.S. will not able to deliver on a lot of things that they're asking for.

KENYON: And what are the Gulf States asking for? Salman Shaikh at the Brookings Doha Center says three items are paramount.

SALMAN SHAIKH: Iran, Iran and Iran.

KENYON: To get some idea of the obsession Sunni-Arab Gulf states have with Shiite-led Iran, one only needs to glance around the region. Many Syrians, for instance, blame the chaos engulfing their country on the brutal government in Damascus or on rampaging groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But Gulf Arab leaders look at Syria and see one thing - a government propped up by Tehran. If you ask Yeminis what's wrong with their country, they might point to desperate poverty, a corrupt government, or the al-Qaida extremists who roam the countryside at will. But ask their Gulf Arab neighbors, and the answer is simple - the Houthi rebels battling the government are proxies for Iran. And then there's Iraq. When the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq more than a decade ago, the reaction from Gulf Arab leaders was stunned disbelief. Why, they asked, would our strongest ally hand Iraq over to neighboring Iran, which is exactly what they believe has happened since U.S. forces withdrew. Add to that outlook the fear that Iran could emerge from ongoing nuclear talks with more money to meddle in the region and shrinking Arab leverage as America grows less dependent on Gulf oil supply, and, analyst Salman Shaikh says, it's easy to see why Gulf States are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

SHAIKH: That's why, I think, you've got the Saudi leadership now, which we may not have guessed or had a year ago, the most transformative Saudi leader since, I think, its founder, Ibn Saud, in a region where Iran is tilting the balance of power decisively in its favor.

KENYON: President Obama and his security team will be trying to convince the Arab leaders that Washington remains fully committed, both to their security and to pushing back against Iran's regional ambitions. But the White House rejects the idea that reaching a deal to restrict Iran's nuclear program will somehow unleash Tehran to pursue its regional goals. Colin Kahl, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, says it's important to keep in mind that much of the Iranian activity Arab states are upset about has happened while sanctions are in place.

COLIN KAHL: Much of Iran's perceived success is not a consequence of their strength, but, frankly, the weakness of a lot of the states in this part of the world. So much of the solution is not necessarily a weaker Iran, but, frankly, stronger partners.

KENYON: The administration is promising better missile defense for Gulf States, but not the kind of aircraft or weaponry the Arab states are seeking. Analysts say Gulf leaders appear to be preparing to continue their own more aggressive policies in the region while waiting to see what the next U.S. Administration may bring. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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