Officials at the US State Department said the talks would explore steps by the US and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to expedite and streamline transfers of critical weapons systems. The talks could lead to a US team of experts traveling to the GCC countries, but no major sales were foreshadowed.
Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, speculated that if the talks yield any announcements of military sales, they would be for systems already in the pipeline.
The summit is not about deliverables, but rather America's tangled relationships in the Middle East. President Barack Obama had invited six Arabian Gulf leaders to the presidential retreat, amid suspicions that Washington was no longer committed to their security and was doing too little to stop Iran's destabilizing actions across the region.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman withdrew days before the summit, leaving Saudi Arabia and the US scrambling to deny a rift over nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran.
Only two leaders — from Qatar and Kuwait — are slated to attend. Days before Wednesday's meeting at the White House and Friday's gathering at Camp David, Riyadh said it would instead send Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the king's influential son Mohammed bin Salman.
According to Henderson, the US is coming to the summit willing to offer weapons systems in exchange for its support for, or silence about, the US deal with Iran, while Gulf countries want US support for the Saudi-led war against Yemen, more action to oust Syrian leader Bashar Assad and a curb on Iranian influence in the region.
The absence of top leaders suggests the summit will not yield any significant agreements, he said.
"It isn't a summit and it can't be depicted as such," Henderson said. "I can see it depicted as a nice time in a nice part of Maryland for an exchange of views, but that doesn't really mean you agree. I can't see them agreeing on the core issues."
The Defense Department wants to see the Gulf nations more effectively work together against common threats, and to that end, integrate the sophisticated, modern weaponry provided by the US. That includes ballistic missile defenses, as well as maritime and counter-terrorism capabilities.
"I don't think there will be any major foreign military sales, and frankly they have the weapons they need," Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said. "What we're going to work with them on is, from a military perspective, what they can do to confront the threats they face now."
"The big thing on the GCC summit is about continuing to strengthen this long-standing relationship we've had with the gulf nations," Warren said. "We want them to build their forces to be more interoperable and can integrate."
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.