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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

All eyes on Qatar ahead of 39th GCC summit

Member states will discuss political, security, economic and legal cooperation during the summit

Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah gestures during a news conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Reuters
Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah gestures during a news conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Reuters

Representatives from member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are expected to attend the 39th annual GCC summit in the Saudi Arabian capital on Sunday, but it remains unclear whether Qatar will boycott this year's session.

The GCC states - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar – come together every year to discuss trade and security cooperation.

GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al Zayani said member states will discuss political, security, economic and legal cooperation during the 39th session, according to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

Member states will also review "reports and recommendations submitted by relevant specialized ministerial committees and the General Secretariat," SPA quoted him as saying.

Although it has not been publically placed on the agenda, the bloc is also likely to discuss MESA, an Arab security apparatus similar to Nato. However, a diplomatic dispute with Qatar has raised questions over the probability that such a force could materialize.

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Qatar was the only one from the six-nation bloc to send their head of state to last year's summit in Kuwait, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain sent government officials rather than the countries’ leaders to represent them in an apparent snub to Qatari Emir Tamim Al Thani.

Even though Saudi Arabia sent a letter to the Qatari Emir, inviting him to Sunday's summit, it is still unknown if the Qatari Emir will cross the border into Saudi Arabia for the first time since the diplomatic crisis with Qatar began in 2017.

Mr Al Thani's absence from the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia earlier this year suggests he may be avoiding meetings in the kingdom. This week's announcement by Qatar that it will be the first Middle Eastern country to leave OPEC- a move many have said is aimed at Saudi Arabia- has further fuelled doubts over attendance.

The Qatari Emir landed in Malaysia on Wednesday for a working visit that will focus on economic cooperation between the two countries. He also attended the third Sheikh Tamim International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award on Friday in the city of Putrajaya. It was not immediately clear when he would return.

Sunday's GCC summit is second since Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Bahrain, cut ties with Qatar, which they accuse of interfering in their internal affairs and supporting hard-line and extremist groups across the region.

Since the dispute broke out, the two sides have had little contact, with the exception of a phone call between the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Tamim that turned sour.

Oman was originally slated to host the 39th annual summit, but Saudi Arabia invoked a body bylaw to allow the Kingdom to intercede and host the meeting at the GCC headquarters in Riyadh, in an apparent move to ensure the attendance of senior representatives.

Either the Saudi King or his son, the crown prince, will likely chair the session. Meanwhile, Kuwait announced that Emir Sabah Al Ahmed will be heading the delegation to the Saudi capital.

The attendance of the most senior Saudi leaders, and those of its closest GCC allies – Bahrain and the UAE – will place Qatar in a difficult situation. Either send a high-ranking official, or the emir himself, and be seen as conciliatory or to send a lower-level diplomat and risk being seen to publicly snub Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of the differences in the GCC, the member states still share enough economic and security challenges that working together serves their individual interests.

The dispute with Qatar is not the region's first. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors from Doha over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which the three Gulf states view as undermining their domestic security.

The 2014 crisis lasted eight months and was resolved in an emergency meeting in Riyadh where the countries vowed to turn over a new leaf.