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.