05/15/2015 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

Saudi King Salman May Visit Washington After All


WASHINGTON -- King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, whose absence at the Obama administration's just-concluded summit with Sunni Arab leaders prompted alarm bells about U.S.-Arab relations, may soon head to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency mentioned the prospect of a visit earlier this week in a previously overlooked report. Now, there is a growing sense in the Washington diplomatic community and among U.S. officials that a visit is impending.

The development provides a boost for the White House the day after Obama's meetings with leaders from six Arab nations in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, concluded without fanfare or any sign that progress had been made to resolve months-long tensions over the president's nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The Sunni Arab nations, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, worry that the Obama administration is tacitly permitting Iran to destabilize the region in its eagerness to achieve a nuclear deal. On Thursday, Obama said he had offered the Sunni Arabs security assurances, and Gulf diplomats said they felt they had taken an important step for the long-term relationship -- but the president notably conducted the post-summit conference alone.

The news also undercuts a recent barrage of reports -- and political attacks -- saying the Saudis and other Arabs meant to snub Obama by declining to send their top leaders to Washington for his summit. On Sunday, the same day that the Saudi Embassy in Washington said that King Salman would not attend the summit, Bahrain also said it would send its crown prince rather than its top royal. Two Arab leaders, those of Qatar and Kuwait, did attend the conference, while the leaders of the other two nations within the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- were said to be too sick to attend.

The Saudi king's visit would very likely come within the next few weeks, prior to the June 30 deadline for a final deal on Iran's nuclear program, so the king can have a chance to weigh in personally. By making a separate visit, the thinking goes, the Saudi king can better emphasize what kind of deal he is willing to accept to limit Iran's nuclear program, and underscore Saudi Arabia's leadership among the Gulf Arab states.

"There are those who think that the King would feel more comfortable in a tete-a-tete with President Obama as opposed to being one among 5 other Arab leaders," said Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington who is now a terrorism analyst at JTG Inc. "I think the Saudis would like to know more about the US endgame in its negotiations with Iran and the US probably would like to know more about Saudi Arabia's endgame in Yemen and perhaps even Syria."

Nazer said via email that he could not confirm any plans for a visit, but echoed U.S. officials by adding that he "wouldn't be surprised" by one.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to The Huffington Post's request for comment.

Those paying close attention should not be surprised by the growing certainty about a visit. In its summary of a phone call between between Obama and the king earlier this week, the Saudi Press Agency stated, "The two leaders looked forward to meeting soon for consultation and coordination over issues of common concern."

The White House readout of the call contained no such reference to a future meeting. This matters because it appears that the Obama administration originally created the conditions for drama to erupt over the Saudi king's absence at the summit. Sources aware of the Saudi approach to the summit told the Wall Street Journal this week that the king's presence was never confirmed by their side. Instead, according to officials interviewed by the Journal, it was assumed by Secretary of State John Kerry after meetings with the king and his foreign minister last week.

The Saudis took pains after the announcement Sunday to say the king's plans were not intended to offend the U.S. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that interpreting his absence as a snub was "really off-base." Both he and the White House said King Salman chose to stay in Saudi Arabia to monitor the progress of a ceasefire in Yemen, where for weeks a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries has been combating a Shiite militant group tied to Iran.

Still, the apparent plans for a royal visit to the U.S. should not signal a resolution of the tensions between the two countries on the subject of Iran. If and when the king does sit down with Obama, how to deal with Iran -- specifically its potential nuclear capabilities under a deal with world powers and its influence in parts of the Muslim world like Yemen and Syria -- will likely be at the top of the agenda.

King Salman had his first meeting with Obama as head of state in January, days after he succeeded his brother to the throne.

  • 1 "He will be remembered for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths"
    - David Cameron
    Samira Rahmoon, center, the wife of Lebanese TV psychic Ali Sibat who was arrested by the Saudi religious police in May 2008 and sentenced to death last November on charges of practicing witchcraft, tries to block the road with her daughter Jamal, appealing for her husband's release just months after he escaped a sentence of beheading.
  • 2 'King Abdullah was a strong advocate of women'
    - Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF
    FAYEZ NURELDINE via Getty Images
    A Saudi woman gets into a taxi at a mall in Riyadh, because of the driving ban for women in Saudi Arabia
  • 3 "Despite the turmoil of events in the region around him, he was a patient and skilful moderniser of his country"
    - Tony Blair
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  • 4 "His contribution to the prosperity and security of the Kingdom and the region will long be remembered."
    - Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary
    A leaked video shows three men being publicly beheaded in Saudi.
  • 5 "I found His Majesty always to be a wise and reliable ally, helping out nations build on a strategic relationship and enduring friendship"
    - Former US president George HW Bush
    Olivier Douliery/ABACA USA
    Protesters hold a rally in front of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington DC to protest of the persecution and punishment of Saudi activist Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes simply for publishing a blog criticizing the Saudi monarchy
  • 6 "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah's legacy"
    - Barack Obama
    NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images
    Protesters simulate a flogging in front of the Saudi embassy during a demonstration against the 10-year prison sentence and 1,000 lashes of Saudi activist Raef Badawi, who received a first installment of 50 lashes and was scheduled to have 20 weekly whipping sessions until his punishment is complete.
  • 7 "He was also a vocal advocate for peace, speaking out against violence in the Middle East and standing as a critical partner in the war on terror"
    - Republican Senator John McCain
    Saudis gather as police forces surround a mosque to hunt wanted militants, in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, after one-month amnesty, in 2004
  • 8 "A brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace"
    - Secretary of State John Kerry
    A Saudi driver stops in front of a billboard bearing logos of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice - better known as the Saudi religious police, who enforce beliefs of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam.
  • 9 "A powerful voice for tolerance, moderation and peace - in the Islamic world and across the globe"
    - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel
    The death penalty can be imposed for murder, rape, blasphemy, armed robbery, drug use, apostasy, adultery, and witchcraft.