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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

Seen at GCC summit: rare insight into inter-Gulf relationships

Although it lasted for just one day, a lot could be read into the proceedings

Saudi King Salman with Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed at the GCC summit in Riyadh. Saudi Press Agency via AP
Saudi King Salman with Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed at the GCC summit in Riyadh. Saudi Press Agency via AP

The GCC summit in Riyadh was notable for the opportunity of a rare glimpse into the personal relations between its leaders at what was otherwise a low-key affair held under the cloud of the Qatar crisis.

Although all members of royal families, the leaders' interaction is dictated by a mix of modern protocol and social norms drawn from centuries-old complex Bedouin traditions on the Arabian Peninsula.

Protocol is key but respect is king at the summit. How the leaders greet one another is often a good indicator of their relations. Upon his arrival, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, greeted King Salman with kisses on each cheek but also one on the shoulder – denoting respect for an elder.

Other variations exist. Showing respect during the nose-bump, a traditional Bedouin greeting, requires the greeter to kiss the nose of the elder – as Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed did when greeting the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Rank matters, but age is important. King Salman and Emir Sabah Al Ahmed of Kuwait are the two oldest rulers in the region and are often the recipients of greetings denoting respect.

After a simple but warm embrace, the two octogenarians walked hand in hand along the tarmac. The conversation between them in the royal majlis seemed the least forced, the back-and-forth earnest and uninterrupted by the pauses or laughs typical of these exchanges. What they were talking about, however, will remain a mystery.

Even the planes delivering the GCC leaders were subject to protocol – they would stop right before the golden escalators and fly the Saudi flag side-by-side with their own from a hatch above the cockpit.

In advance of the summit, the big question was how the Qatari delegation would be received, given the rift within the bloc after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut off ties over Doha's policies that they consider threatening to their countries and to the Gulf region. The nature of the welcome they received remains unknown - the video broadcast of the planes arriving did not include the one carrying the Qatari delegation, although they were later present at the meeting table.

It is the subtext at these conferences that tell the story, even in the placement of the national flags. In the main press hall, the first row of flags had Saudi Arabia and Oman at the centre, Bahrain to the right and, surprisingly, Qatar to the left, all bookended by the Emirati and Kuwaiti flags. The positioning was almost as if to send a message that the continuing integrity of the GCC was paramount.

In the event, the Qatari emir chose not to attend.

“See, we put the flags up. Qatar’s flag is in the Kingdom. But [the emir is] not here,” a senior Saudi political analyst said with disappointment.

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After an opening session of less than an hour, the media were evicted to allow the start of closed-door consultations. But from a window in the press room the leaders were seen leaving the circular conference table after just 15 minutes. The explanation given was that they were going to another room to discuss the agenda, as the giant round table is not conducive to the “close quarters” dialogue they wanted to have.

Ultimately, the fact that the summit took place is a success in itself. Amid their diplomatic standoff, the annual meeting continues to be the highest level of contact between the three boycotting countries and Qatar.

Updated: December 10, 2018 10:57 PM

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