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Gulf monarchs seek united front at annual summit

09 december 2015, 18:21
0
Gulf foreign ministers attend a meeting a few days ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. ©AFP
Gulf foreign ministers attend a meeting a few days ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. ©AFP

Gulf monarchs began arriving in Saudi Arabia for an annual summit Wednesday, facing challenges including plunging oil revenues, the war in Yemen, pressure for peace in Syria and signs of regional divisions.

The kings and emirs, who will meet at a royal palace, are expected to voice support for a bid to unify Syria's opposition ahead of potential talks with President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Syria meeting, bringing together representatives of political and armed opposition factions, began earlier Wednesday at a luxury hotel in Riyadh.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit also comes days before Yemeni rivals are to gather in Switzerland to try to end a costly war that has drawn in Gulf nations.

The GCC brings together Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose leaders will hold two days of talks in the Saudi capital.

Despite the urgency of the challenges facing the six countries, analysts say the Gulf monarchs will struggle to find common ground.

"This summit comes as the Gulf is witnessing one of its most critical years," said Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

He sees "internal disagreement" among the Gulf states confronting complicated economic and security challenges.

These include greater worries about Iran after a July deal that will easesanctions on the predominantly Shiite nation, including its oil sector, in return for restrictions on its nuclear facilities.

Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia are rivals for regional influence in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

"The main challenge facing the GCC summit is, as usual, trying to ensure a united front on the major strategic challenges in the region," said Neil Partrick, author of a forthcoming book on Saudi foreign policy.

Bid for unity
The summit coincides with Saudi Arabia's hosting of the Syrian talks it hopes could help ease out Assad.

About 100 representatives from Syria's fragmented political and armed opposition groups are in Riyadh in an unprecedented bid for unity ahead of potential negotiations with Assad's regime.

Partrick said that with Saudi Arabia and Qatar competing to support Syrian rebel groups, the GCC summit is unlikely to offer much, except "broad support" for the opposition and conditional talks with the Assad administration.

Those GCC divisions mean that a clear line on who should represent the rebels is not expected, he said.

Assad is supported by Iran and Russia, which has for more than two months been conducting air strikes in Syria.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in late November that if Assad does not step down peacefully "he could be ousted militarily".

For more than eight months, Gulf military forces have been fighting in Yemen to support President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi's government alongside an array of local anti-rebel forces.

The coalition has been trying to push Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels and allied troops from territory they occupied in Yemen.

Jihadists have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their presence.

'Expect very little'
Oman is the only GCC state not part of the coalition but has mediated and provided a neutral venue for talks.

"On Yemen expect very little" from the summit other than support for Hadi's "legitimacy", said Partrick.

According to the United Nations envoy to Yemen, another attempt at peace talks will start on December 15, after earlier efforts collapsed.

Jane Kinninmont, of the Chatham House think-tank in London, said divisions have weakened the GCC's ability to work together on solutions to regional crises.

Gulf rivalries which "exacerbated the factionalism in Syria's opposition" are one example, she said.

The GCC was founded to more deeply integrate the Gulf countries but Kinninmont said the emphasis over the last few years has been on intelligence and security cooperation.

Low oil prices "should focus the minds of GCC leaders" on economic matters, in line with the wishes of many Gulf citizens, she said.

Crude prices have more than halved since early 2014 and the IMF has projected a $275 billion drop in export revenues this year for the resource-dependent Gulf economies.

By Karim Abou Merhi and Ian Timberlake


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