KUWAIT CITY - Leaders of the oil-rich Gulf states converged on Kuwait Tuesday for a summit amid differences over a proposed confederation and ties with Iran.
The summit follows a rare public spat between bloc leader Saudi Arabia and Oman over Riyadh’s proposal to upgrade the GCC into a union - 32 years after its establishment. Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi threatened at the weekend that Muscat would pull out of the loose alliance if a union was announced, while Saudi Arabia, solidly backed by Bahrain, insisted it was time to move ahead.
The two-day meeting due to open later on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss plans to boost economic integration and defence and security coordination in the face of regional upheavals following the Arab Spring uprisings.
Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is attending the annual summit for the first time while Saudi Arabia is represented by its crown prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz.
Oman is represented by the deputy premier and the United Arab Emirates by the vice-president and prime minister.
Foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Monday night drew up a final agenda for the two-day summit, which will also discuss the 33-month old Syrian conflict in which around 126,000 people have been killed.
Kuwait’s State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Sabah told reporters that talks over the union were still ongoing.
“When consensus is reached, a special summit will convene in Riyadh to make the announcement,” he said, ruling out a major declaration at the Kuwait meeting.
Besides Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, the GCC comprises Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayyani said “consultations on the union are focusing on the best formula and method to best achieve the objectives of the proposed union.”
Details on the confederation proposed by Saudi King Abdullah in 2011 have not been disclosed.
“Oman does not want to be a part of any measure that might be seen as directed against Iran,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah told AFP.
Muscat enjoys good relations with Tehran and might be distancing itself from a union led by heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which sees in Tehran a regional rival.
Ties between Sunni-ruled GCC states and neighbouring Shiite Iran are expected to figure high on the agenda after the landmark deal reached last month between Tehran and world powers over its controversial nuclear programme.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last week toured four GCC countries, but not Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.
Zarif tried to assure Gulf states the nuclear deal was not at their expense and called for a new page in relations, although Saudi Arabia in particular appears to remain sceptical over the Iranian overtures.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah told the official KUNA news agency on Tuesday that the final communique of the summit would welcome the nuclear deal.
Jarallah said the summit would also approve setting up a unified GCC military command.
The GCC summit is also due to discuss proposed peace talks on the Syrian conflict in Geneva next month as well as a “Kuwait 2” donors conference, both to be held next month.
Jarallah said the GCC summit would back taking part in the so-called Geneva 2 talks scheduled for January 22 at which a transitional government in Syria is due to be discussed.
GCC states, which have a combined gross domestic product of $1.6 trillion, will also assess their economic integration projects, especially a slow-moving customs union and plans for a common currency.
On the back of high oil prices, the six nations, with a combined population of 47 million, almost half of them foreigners, have accumulated financial assets worth $2 trillion, expected to grow to $2.4 trillion in 2014.