x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Gulf states 'need time to study' union plan

The Gulf states will need more time and study to determine whether to move towards closer union, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said after a consultative GCC summit in Riyadh.

The Gulf states will need more time and study to determine whether to move towards closer union, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said after a consultative GCC summit yesterday in Riyadh.

The GCC has "approved the call for a commission to continue studying in order to present final results" to another summit, Prince Saud Al Faisal said. "The issue will take time. The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three."

Details of the proposal to turn the 31-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council into a union remain vague. The idea was first floated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in December. The Bahraini information minister, Samira Rajab, said it could follow the "European Union model".

Some analysts had expected yesterday's meeting to launch plans for closer union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Ms Rajab said on Sunday she expected "an announcement of two or three countries" on a closer union. The Bahraini foreign minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, had also announced his support.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain began to cultivate stronger ties after protests in Bahrain in 2011. Both governments have argued the uprising was stoked by Iran.

King Hamad of Bahrain said before the summit in Riyadh that the proposed union was a "response to changes and challenges that face us on international and regional fronts".

In March 2011, a joint military operation led by Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain to quell the violence. GCC countries also pledged nearly Dh40 billion in aid to Bahrain and Oman over the next decade.

Proponents of union in Bahrain had argued that tensions with Iran now warranted closer regional cooperation in the Gulf.

The trouble in Bahrain "was like a … wake-up call", Shaikh Abdullatif Al Mahmood, leader of Bahrain's Gathering of National Unity, said in April. His group supports a union.

"What happened last year made [us] feel more danger coming from Iran and their plans. We support the unity of the GCC countries … because it is a very good strategic tactic," he said.

Prince Faisal yesterday warned Iran to stay out of both Saudi and Bahraini affairs. Iranian MPs, in a letter condemning the idea of a union, had vowed yesterday that any union would "only strengthen the Bahraini people's resolve against the forces of occupation".

Before the summit, some analysts had raised concerns about whether the GCC states were ready for a closer union. The Gulf Forum for Civil Societies called yesterday for more discussion with the citizens of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before taking steps to unify.

The opposition protest movement in Bahrain has also criticised moves towards a union. The two largest opposition parties, Al Wefaq and Waad, dislike the idea.

"They think any deal must get approval from the people," said Jasim Husain, a former Al Wefaq member of parliament who resigned at the height of the protests last year. Activists in Bahrain had said they were planning protests in response to the union push.

But some analysts have argued that a closer union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in particular would merely be recognition of the growing cooperation between the two governments. "Any union [would] not be important for what it changes in practice, but rather for what it expresses in symbolism," said Jason Stearn, a researcher and blogger at George Washington University, who writes on Bahrain.

The summit yesterday touched on several other issues, including the conflict in Syria. Al Arabiya news also reported that the six countries had agreed on a five-year package of aid for Jordan and Morocco.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse