x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Gulf ministers consider formal union

Analysts say differences over economic policy, as well as a preoccupation with the crisis in Syria, would likely stall implementation of any plans.

Gulf foreign ministers will meet next month to consider proposals to form a Gulf Union, Saudi Arabia's English-language paper, the Saudi Gazette, reported yesterday.

The proposed union would bring the Gulf Cooperation Council's six countries into a closer political and economic alliance. But analysts said that differences over economic policy, as well as a preoccupation with the crisis in Syria, would likely stall implementation of any plans.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had enthusiastically advocated for a Gulf Union when it was first proposed in May, arguing that a more unified region would form a bulwark against Iran. At a summit in Riyadh, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, said Tehran should "keep out" of regional affairs.

But several other countries expressed concerns about the details of integration, and the GCC set up a 12-person committee to "study" the proposal. The committee has now completed its three-month review and addressed several states' concerns, GCC Secretary General Abdullateef Al Zayani said.

"This meeting will most likely be the foreign ministers touching base," said Michael Stephens a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute for Security and Defence Studies in Doha. "The fundamental issues and disagreements are still the same," he said.

GCC countries opened discussions to establish a customs union and common currency in 2003. But the talks fell apart after Oman and the UAE pulled out, in part over disagreements about the location of a common central bank. A committee formed in June is working to resolve those issues but is not due to complete its work until 2014.

"A real union is not in the cards because the GCC has unfinished business in economic integration, which is essential," Jasim Husain, a Bahraini economist and former MP.

Foreign policy has also proven a stumbling block to further integration. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reportedly supporting the rebel opposition to Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad. Both countries have also condemned Iran for its continued support for the Syrian regime.

Smaller states such as Oman and Kuwait, which have traditionally maintained relations with both Riyadh and Tehran, are increasingly concerned about getting drawn into the conflict.

"Black clouds have begun to gather in the skies of the region," Kuwait's former foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammad Al Sabah, said on August 4.

"The GCC will guarantee that chaos does not plague the region."

Next month's meeting will come on the heels of an emergency summit of Muslim nations called by Saudi King Abdullah Al Aziz to be held in Mecca on August 14 and 15.

Yesterday, the Saudi state news agency announced that it had invited Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend the summit.