x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

GCC leader's Tehran visit to focus on relations

One issue certain to be on the agenda will be the long-standing conflict between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over their disputed sovereignty claims on three Gulf islands.

RIYADH // The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council will make an official visit to Tehran for two days starting on Tuesday, a first for the head of the Arab organisation, officials said. Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Attiyah and other GCC officials will confer with senior Iranians, including the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during the visit, which is widely seen as an effort to improve relations between the Arab Gulf states and their neighbour. "This is a big change," one foreign diplomat said of the visit, which comes almost one year after Mr Ahmadinejad accepted the GCC's invitation to address its annual summit in Doha last December. His appearance there was also a first. A few months later, the Iranians reciprocated with an invitation for the GCC leader to come to Tehran. The purpose of this week's visit, said a Gulf official who asked not to be identified, "is to have direct contact with the Iranians" and "explore ways to communicate" with them. He suggested that the possibility of a new US administration starting a dialogue with Iran that might sideline the Arab Gulf states was a factor in their decision to take up the Iranian invitation. "It's important to have direct contact with Iran, instead of going through the United States or Europe," he said. Saudi Arabia, the most influential of the GCC's six members, is also deeply worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran's success in that venture would dramatically affect the balance of power in the Gulf region and introduce a whole new dimension in Arab-Iranian relations. Riyadh also is annoyed by what it sees as Iran's meddling in internal Arab affairs, particularly in Lebanon and Iraq, where Iran has emerged as the most influential partner of Baghdad's Shiite-majority government. The talks in Tehran will also cover trade relations. And one issue certain to be on the agenda will be the long-standing conflict between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over their disputed sovereignty claims on three islands in the Gulf, including that of Abu Moussa. The UAE was upset this year when the Iranians established a maritime office on that island. Besides the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the GCC includes Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar. Mr Attiyah, the secretary general, is from Qatar, whose leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, visited Iran in September and proposed a summit between leaders of the six Gulf Arab states and Iran. That proposal remains under consideration. Meanwhile, finance officials and bankers from GCC member states met yesterday in Riyadh for discussions on how to jointly cope with the global economic crisis that is beginning to send severe currents into the Gulf financial sector. The extraordinary meeting was called about two weeks ago and an agenda not publicised beforehand, leading most observers not to expect major decisions. On Friday, Opec announced it was slashing its production five per cent, by 1.5 million barrels a day, to shore up plummeting oil prices. cmurphy@thenational.ae