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Why did Saudi King Salman pull out of Camp David talks?

Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the King of Bahrain won’t be attending President Obama’s summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David, instead sending officials in their place.The State Department denied it's a snub, triggered by concerns about the U.S. pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Margaret joins me now.

    Margaret, we saw at the State Department, but at also the White House in the Briefing Room today very aggressive pushback of the notion that this was a snub, this last-minute decision not to come, especially on the part of the Saudi king. What really happened?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What happened was, remember when this was laid on by the White House, last month, right after coming up with this political framework for an Iranian nuclear deal.

    And the hope was that, with the right assurances, the Gulf countries would at least give some sort of tacit approval to pursuing this deal. Instead, what the White House felt was a great compliment, being invited to the White House, Camp David, I'm told by people close to the palace in Saudi Arabia that King Salman felt he was being summoned to Washington.

    He didn't like being lumped in with all the GCC members. Then — because Saudi Arabia should be first among equals. Then he — after talking to Secretary Kerry and after the meeting in Paris on Friday, it became obvious he wasn't going to get really the assurances he wanted, and that being from a culture where it's rude for your host to say no, he didn't really want to be taken up to Camp David and then asked to sign something that he later would want to back off from.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, the president did talk to him today to kind of smooth things over, we assume.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But at the root of this, Iran. Right?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    At the root of this, Iran, and also the fact that the U.S. and the Saudis, despite all these years of at least some sort of partnership over oil and many other things, really don't know how to — don't understand each other very well.

    But, yes, it's not only that Iran after 10 or 15 years, whenever the negotiated time period expires, that Iran could be a nuclear weapons-capable state. It's the Saudis fear that once the international community strikes a deal with Iran, Iran will, one, gain in stature and legitimacy, might even supplant the U.S. as a major partner in the region, and that, as sanctions are slowly lifted and it has more money, it will able to even better fund a lot of these groups, proxies that are destabilizing other countries in the region, whether it's Shiite groups in Bahrain, whether it's Hezbollah in Syria, whether it's the Houthis in Yemen.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, well, let's talk about Yemen a little bit, because I wonder if that's partly also on the agenda for this weekend, or if there is anything that can be accomplished at this meeting in Camp David?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I think what the Saudis wanted was — or at least certainly the UAE wanted — was some kind of a mutual defense pact, almost like NATO.

    And the Americans said they told them a couple of weeks ago that was a nonstarter, that wasn't going to happen. But the U.S. is talking about not only selling them more weaponry, if that's what they want, but helping the GCC develop greater capabilities to defend against all these unconventional threats, whether it's cyber, whether it's threats to their own oil infrastructure, and make it more interoperable with the U.S.

    And there will be some sort of document that reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the security of its allies. For instance, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. was in there. One person close to the Saudi culture who spent a lot of time there said, don't underestimate the human factor here.

    When the 79-year-old king was confronted with the idea that he had to get on a plane, fly to Washington, get on a helicopter, chopper up to Camp David, sit around in the woods, and then asked to sign on the dotted line, that's not his idea of fun.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    May have been just as simple as that.

    Margaret Warner, thanks again.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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