The Obama administration scrambled Monday to blunt suggestions that Persian Gulf leaders are signaling unhappiness with the White House by shunning President Obama's invitation to a defense summit this week.
Although the heads of four of the six Arab states have declined to attend the two-day event, "we're confident we'll have the right people around the table at Camp David," said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
The meetings, which will take place Wednesday at the White House and Thursday at the presidential retreat in Maryland, are aimed at strengthening ties at a time of unusual friction between the longtime allies. The six gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman — are worried the administration may be forming an alliance with its ascendant regional rival, Iran, and is disengaging in the Middle East despite the spread of civil strife.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and the heads of state of the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain have all disclosed in the last week that they were sending subordinates to meet with Obama and his aides.
Earnest insisted that if they were trying to indicate displeasure with Obama's policies, "the message was not received because all the feedback we have received from the Saudis has been positive."
Adel Jubeir, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington who was named foreign minister last month, said reports that the kingdom was snubbing the administration were "really off base.... We really don't have disagreements."
Salman decided to remain in Saudi Arabia to monitor a five-day cease-fire that is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Yemen, where Saudi warplanes have been bombing Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents since March, Jubeir said.
Jubeir said those attending in the monarch's place, Crown Prince Mohammad ibn Nayif and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad ibn Salman, were "an extremely high-level delegation."
Gulf officials and private experts have said the Arab states are eager to register their unhappiness with the drift of American policy, and hope the summit will bring them security reassurances and promises of new U.S. weapons.
But opinions were split on whether a snub was intended.
Bruce Riedel, a former U.S. intelligence official now with Brookings Institution, wrote in a blog post that Salman's no-show was "a very deliberate signal of his lack of confidence in American policy in the Middle East."
He added, "The Saudis are unhappy with U.S. policy toward Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They don't want a public argument with the Obama administration (unlike Israel) but they want a very public display of their dissatisfaction."
Other experts pointed out that Salman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman and Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates are in poor health. And the two top Saudis in the delegation have day-to-day responsibility of running the country.
The Saudis probably intended to send "a little bit of a signal. But I don't think it's a catastrophic dismissal of Obama," said Frederic Wehrey, a Mideast specialist of the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite their current frustrations, each side has little choice but to rely on the other to try to stabilize the region and guarantee a continued flow of oil, he said.