KUWAIT CITY // Arabian Gulf officials opened a crucial GCC summit on Tuesday amid a backdrop of regional political shifts that have unveiled rifts between member states.
The 33-month Syrian civil war and the West’s interim nuclear deal with Iran have added greater importance to the 34th annual meeting, which has traditionally focused on economic issues.
“A look at the regional circumstances among us on the regional and international sphere, confirms the obvious importance of our meeting today and the necessity of discussions and the exchange of opinions regarding these circumstances and their consequences in our region,” said the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, as he opened the two-day summit.
Three Gulf leaders attended the meeting – the rulers of Qatar, Bahrain and host country Kuwait. The UAE was represented by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
The Saudi crown prince represented King Abdullah, while Oman was represented by its deputy premier.
The recent rapprochement between the US and Iran has sharpened a call by Saudi Arabia for GCC members to form an EU-style union. Yesterday there seemed to be a step in that direction as Kuwait’s foreign ministry under secretary, Khaled Al Jarallah, said the summit would approve setting up a unified GCC military command.
Oman, a key broker in negotiations that led to the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, said at a security summit in Bahrain on Sunday that it would not take part in a union.
Sheikh Sabah said he hoped the deal, which freezes some of Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for partial sanctions relief, would help to boost relations with Iran.
The GCC states have “expressed their satisfaction with the interim Geneva deal ... hoping it would succeed and lead to a permanent agreement that would keep tension away from the region”, he said.
Sheikh Sabah also called for an end to the “human catastrophe” in Syria.
“The human catastrophe is still continuing in Syria which calls on us to double efforts and work with the international community, especially the UN Security Council which has remained unable to put an end to this human tragedy,” Sheikh Sabah said.
The leader of Syria’s main opposition National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, attended the opening of the summit and delivered a speech in which he appealed for urgent help from the Gulf states.
Gulf leaders have clashed with Iran over Syria’s war. Tehran is a key ally of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, while the GCC states have called for Mr Al Assad to step down.
Some analysts say there is still a deep distrust of Tehran’s policies given its historic rhetoric of being the power broker in the region, which has included threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at Emirates University, who observed the meeting. “Some are worried, some are more worried and some are more relaxed. Iran has always been on the agenda, and will always be on the agenda.”
The summit comes a week after the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, visited Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE to reassure officials over the interim nuclear agreement.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had visited Tehran a few days earlier.
A key sticking point between the two states has been Iran’s occupation of three islands that lie close to the Straight of Hormuz.
Prof Abdullah said Iran may be showing some willingness to open talks with the UAE over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs.
“If there’s a serious offer from Tehran on this particular issue”, it could lead to a breakthrough, he said.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse