ABU DHABI // Regional security will be high on the agenda as the leaders of Gulf countries meet in the capital today against a backdrop of rising instability and extremism in Yemen, and a stand-off between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
"The security threat agenda for the GCC conference is really pregnant and stocked with so many problems for the leadership to deal with," Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said yesterday.
"With the primary neighbours of the Gulf, you have ongoing problems in Yemen, ongoing problems in Iraq, and potential big problems from the East if the Iran situation escalates."
The two-day summit will be led by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Yemen's deteriorating security situation was highlighted in October, when bombs were discovered in cargo flown from Yemen at airports in Dubai and London en route to the United States.
The rise and proliferation of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula and the risk posed to Yemen's neighbours through terrorist attacks and recruitment of extremists represented primary threats facing the Gulf countries, said Mohamed bin Huwaidin, an associate professor of political science at UAE University.
"Yemen is very important because of its proximity and the presence, growth and proliferation of al Qa'eda," he said.
"There are many challenges across the Gulf region," said Mr Kahwaji. "The primary one, I would say, is the terrorists."
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, said on Friday in Bahrain that extremism was the primary threat facing the GCC.
With regard to Iran, Gulf countries might want to become involved in negotiations over its nuclear programme, said Prof bin Huwaidin. So far, negotiations with Iran on suspending nuclear enrichment have not involved the GCC.
A new round of talks is scheduled to start this week between Iran and representatives from the five UN Security Council members plus Germany. Some western countries are concerned that Iran is using its nuclear programme to develop weapons.
The Iran meeting comes shortly after US embassy cables, published by WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, showed rising concern in the Gulf over Iran's nuclear programme. The GCC countries are worried that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fuel an arms race in the region, but say the consequences of a military strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities would also destabilise an already fragile region.
Prof bin Huwaidin said the Gulf countries would probably continue to downplay the effect of WikiLeaks, particularly since the GCC did not want an escalation in the region. Gulf capitals had already begun distancing themselves from the leaks, he said.
Some Gulf leaders have said the cables represented an American point of view of the region, rather than the policies of Gulf states. Gulf leaders attending the summit would need to come up with ways to counter internal threats aimed at destabilising their regimes, said Prof bin Huwaidin.
Economic policies are also likely to take a central role, with press conferences scheduled with the Governor of the Central Bank, Sultan al Suwaidi, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, Nasser Ahmed al Suwaidi, and the director general of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, Mohammed Saif al Suwaidi, during the summit.
Prof bin Huwaidin said steps needed to be taken to improve trade and economic integration between the Gulf countries, adding these steps had lagged behind the aspirations of Gulf citizens. There had been no indication of fundamental shifts in the approach towards economic policies, but GCC summits were often veiled in secrecy before they took place, he said.
Still, "until now, economic integration, despite all the advances, has been shy and slow". Bilateral trade still faced a lot of obstacles, and GCC citizens still did not have the economic freedom that should have been guaranteed by the agreements signed so far, he said.