x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syria and Iran to top agenda at GCC summit

Heads of state of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar meet in Bahraini capital under delicate circumstances.

The conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear programme are two of the top issues facing leaders of six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as they convene for a two-day summit today in Manama.

The new year is expected to prove pivotal in both long-running crises, as anti-government rebels in Syria close in capital Damascus and the US administration of Barack Obama is freed from worries about re-election to focus its attention on Tehran's lack of transparency about the aims of its nuclear programme.

The secretary general of the GCC acknowledged the unusually delicate circumstances under which the heads of state of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar were meeting in the Bahraini capital.

"The session will be held under extreme sensitive conditions and circumstances that require the discussion of their repercussions on the GCC march of cooperation," Dr Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani said in a statement.

Some analysts had predicted that this year's summit would announce steps toward the formation of a monetary bloc modelled after the European Union. In May, GCC officials meeting in Saudi Arabia established a special committee to examine the logistics of union and prepare a report on their findings.

Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, said recently that the committee's report was still under review and that the union would not be unveiled at the Manama meeting.

"We have not yet finished our work," the foreign minister told a conference on regional security in Manama earlier this month. "We walk carefully, and we want to make sure that everybody understands what is ahead of us, and everybody agrees."

The announcement of a union will be made at a "special summit in Riyadh in the near future," he added.

The fighting in Syria is perhaps the GCC's most pressing issue. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been outspoken about the need for President Bashar Al Assad to step aside and have been large benefactors for the rebels fighting him. But 22 months into the uprising, with Mr Assad apparently believing that a war of attrition with the insurgents favours his government, the bloodshed is not subsiding. There is also no indication that the GCC will take any additional steps against Mr Assad.

Besides Syria's war and Iran's nuclear ambitions, other issues will be on the GCC's agenda in Manama.

In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency yesterday, GCC officials again rejected Iranian occupation of the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb and called up on Iran "to resort to either direct negotiations or international arbitration to solve this issue.

Another topic of concern is Yemen, where the GCC helped coordinate a political agreement that eased the longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office in February. Mr Saleh has continued to exert political influence and the country remains shaky.

Yet another subject for discussion is the accession of Jordan and Morocco, who were invited to join the bloc in 2011. The annual summit will be the second such gathering since the upheavals of the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East. At their summit last year, GCC leaders announced a $10 billion "Marshall Plan" for members Bahrain and Oman, each suffering from their own bouts of unrest. While Oman declined the donation, Bahrain has started to draw on the funds to improve the kingdom's housing and other infrastructure.

Also, Saudi Arabia recently injected US$1 billion each into the central banks of Egypt and Yemen to strengthen their currencies and help their balance of payments.

Regional experts say that while the establishment of a monetary union has been postponed, the importance of the GCC will continue to expand.

"For Saudi Arabia in particular to begin to think of the GCC not as just club of like-minded states but as an institution, which is what a Gulf union implies, is indicative of a growing maturity within the GCC itself," said Professor Anoush Ehteshami, author of a forthcoming book on Gulf regional politics.

The summit in Manama "will be a public display of the GCC's self-confidence - a measure of its ability to function as a regional grouping at a time when pressures for political change are mounting and progress is yet to be achieved in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue," added Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.