The White House sought to quash concerns that the withdrawal of four of the six top leaders of Gulf nations from a planned summit later this week at Camp David signals strained relations between the administration and countries in that region.
Of the six Arab states invited, only two of the those countries — Kuwait and Qatar — plan on sending their top leaders. The remaining countries Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all sending delegates.
"There had been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to send a message to the U.S. — if so, the message was not received because all the feedback we have gotten from the Saudis has been positive," Earnest told reporters on Monday.
Monday afternoon, King Salman called President Obama and “expressed his regret at not being able to travel to Washington this week” according to the White House readout of the call. Both leaders reviewed the agenda for the summit and discussed Iran, Yemen and the need to work closely to address a range of threats.
The White House hopes the summit will be an opportunity to discuss "our shared concern about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region," and address military cooperation throughout the region, deputy press Secretary Eric Schultz had said previously. The talks will also likely include a potential deal between several world powers and Iran on that country's nuclear program as well as crises in Syria and Yemen.
However, the Obama administration is facing tough questions after King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, one of the administration's key allies, backed out of the summit. Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman will not attend the summit and would instead send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to lead the Saudi delegation.
A senior White House official and officials from the State Department told NBC the administration first learned of the King's possible change of plans from the Saudis on Friday night and this was confirmed by the Saudis on Saturday.
The administration also insisted that the change was not in response to any substantive issue.
"Nothing could be further from the truth that there was some 'snub' — to use the term used by cable news talking points," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said during a briefing on Monday afternoon, adding that Secretary Kerry left his visit in Riyadh last week after "very positive discussions."
When the summit was first announced by the White House on April 17th, the official White House statement said the president would “welcome leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — to the White House on May 13 and to Camp David on May 14.”
Saudi Arabia's decision not to send its top leader is the most jarring: both because of its role as a key ally in the region, but also because it was such an abrupt change, coming just hours after Schultz confirmed the meeting between the president and King Salman on Wednesday at the White House.
A rare Camp David summit with Gulf leaders could have been both a symbolic show of the president’s foreign policy cooperation and a substantive play to boost Middle East allies and persuade nations to embrace a potential nuclear deal with Iran, foreign policy experts said. Instead, the White House spent the entire day explaining why just two of the six top leaders of Gulf nations will attend.
While White House officials insisted this is not a setback for the Obama administration, some foreign policy experts disagreed.
Former Ambassador to Morocco, Mark Ginsberg said Gulf leaders believed there would be progress, if not agreements on a mutual defense agreement, ballistic missile cover and the transfer of F-35 jets, and when they found out they weren’t going to get any of the things they were asking for, they decided it wasn’t worth their time to attend.
“This was a real failure,” Ginsberg said.
An administration official pushed back on that idea, insisting leaders were told weeks ago there would be no formal treaty, and only one nation expressed disappointment in person at a meeting in Paris.
“This was not a case where (Gulf) countries came with a shopping list,” said Rob Malley, White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region. Malley said there was “no hint of dissatisfaction.”