Jordan’s King Abdullah II has been in Washington since Monday. He met with top members of Congress at the Capitol, with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown and with Vice President Joe Biden at his official residence. So why is he flying all the way to California to sit down for a summit with President Barack Obama at a sprawling estate that bills its par-72 golf course as “a magnet for famous golfers?” On Valentine’s Day. With their wives thousands of miles away. At the start of the long Presidents Day weekend.
The White House has been keen to emphasize that the king isn’t there to tee off on Obama’s handling of the bloody civil war in Syria, which has sent a flood of some 600,000 refugees into Jordan — equivalent to about 10 percent of that country’s overall population.
“Jordan is an invaluable ally and close friend of the United States,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. The Sunnylands estate hosted Obama’s June 2013 summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and “will again offer a private location and less formal setting that will allow the president to have a wide-ranging discussion with His Majesty King Abdullah II,” she said.
The United States has provided roughly $300 million in direct assistance to help Jordan cope with the strain on its energy and water sectors from in the influx of Syrian refugees. The meeting could provide the opportunity to announce additional aid.
Beyond the Syrian crisis, Jordan is a key player in the Middle East peace process: It hosts some 2 million Palestinians, making it keenly interested in what any final agreement stipulates about their fate. With Kerry driving a renewed push to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it’s not just an academic concern.
Some 200,000 Iraqi refugees reside in Jordan, meaning Amman also has worriedly watched the recent upsurge in violence there. And like all Arab countries, it’s scrutinizing the ongoing diplomatic efforts to mothball Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
Two U.S. officials told Yahoo News that the king’s focus in Congress was on Syria. And Obama suggested at a press conference this week that he was reviewing his policy towards that conflict.
“We are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem, because it’s not just heartbreaking to see what’s happening to the Syrian people, it’s very dangerous for the region as a whole, including friends and allies and partners like Lebanon or Jordan that are being adversely impacted by it,” the president said.
The king aims to discuss Syria, Middle East peace talks, the situation in Egypt and in Iraq, and Jordan’s economy — particularly “the burdens we are shouldering” because of refugees from Syria, according to Dana Daoud, the information officer at the Jordanian embassy.
For Obama, the California summit kicks off a busy few weeks of Middle East diplomacy. He’ll host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on March 3 and will travel to Saudi Arabia later that month. Both of those meetings are expected to be much chillier than Friday’s talks: Netanyahu has not been shy about criticizing the negotiations with Iran. And Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al Aziz al-Saud — whose country vies with Iran for regional influence — is unhappy not only about the nuclear talks but also about Obama’s decision not to follow through on his threat to strike Syria militarily last year.
None of that really explains the choice of Sunnylands, built by TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg near Rancho Mirage. Camp David is a continent’s width closer, and past presidents have used it for exactly the kind of “informal” chat the White House says it wants.
It’ll be the king’s first time at the estate, but Daoud dismissed “overplayed” speculation about the location. “Simply: The president invited him and he accepted,” she told Yahoo News by telephone.
(Obama’s trip also includes a Friday stop in Fresno to discuss efforts to help California cope with a devastating drought.)
There’s no denying that Sunnylands has a rich history. The Annenbergs frequently played hosts to presidents — Ronald Reagan celebrated New Year’s Eve there 18 times.
And Richard Nixon sought refuge there after his resignation, leaving this message in the guestbook: “When you’re down, you find out who your real friends are — we shall always be grateful for your kindness and loyal friendships.”
“We invited the king to meet in California because … the president liked the idea of a place like Sunnylands for a meeting with King Abdullah, given how close a relationship they have,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News. “The president really appreciated seeing Petra when he went to Jordan, and I think he liked the idea of showing the king someplace outside of Washington,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
So the king arranges a private visit for Obama on one of the most famous archeological sites in the Middle East, and in return he gets a trip to a 25,000-square-foot mansion in the California desert with its own privately commissioned sun god logo. It’s not known whether the two will golf together, though the president is set to stay through Monday and is expected to hit the links after the king flies home.