Leaders of the wealthy Gulf Arab states will meet at their annual summit on Monday, against a backdrop of accelerating regional turmoil and fears of growing Iranian influence after the U.S. pullout from Iraq.
“Several regional issues impose themselves on the summit this year,” including relations with Iran as well as the situation of Syria and Yemen, the Omani minister for foreign affairs, Yussef ben Alawi Abdullah, told AFP.
In the year since the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council last met, popular revolutions have unseated entrenched dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and are now threatening regime change in Syria, while in the neighboring Gulf state of Yemen, the long-time president has been forced to hand over power.
Iran, a key ally of the Syrian regime and influential in the region through proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is accused of fuelling a Shiite-led revolt against Sunni-minority rule in the kingdom of Bahrain.
But it is the potential expansion of Iranian influence in this strategic region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq that most concerns the Gulf monarchies.
Iran is widely believed to exert major influence on the Iraqi government, dominated by Shiites, and has been accused by Washington of training and equipping Shiite militias in the south of Iraq, charges Tehran denies.
Saudi-Iranian relations have also rapidly deteriorated in recent months, as the Sunni kingdom continues to accuse its arch rival of stoking unrest among Saudi Shiites in the country’s Eastern province.
The most serious blow to Saudi-Iranian relations, however came in October when officials from the U.S. justice department announced they had foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
The revelation was followed by angry and threatening remarks from both sides, culminating in a meeting on December 11 between Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi and the Saudi crown prince in Riyadh.
A statement by the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said the aim of the visit was to clear up any “misunderstandings” created by the U.S. allegations.
Moslehi’s trip to Riyadh was the first by a top Iranian official since Iran-Saudi ties took a dive following Saudi military intervention in Bahrain in March to back the Sunni regime against the Shiite-led protests.
Syria and Yemen are two sensitive topics the GCC is also likely to tackle.
Instability in Syria, which yields a great deal of power over Lebanese politics through its proxy Hezbollah and shares a tense border with Israel, has raised both regional and international fears that the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime could unleash even wider regional unrest.
And in Yemen, the GCC was the author and key sponsor of a transition deal that forced embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand power over to his deputy, effectively ending his 33-year-rule of the country.
The changing regional dynamics have forced Gulf nations to consider initiating reforms in their own countries to avoid being swept by the mass uprisings that have transformed the political landscape of the Arab world.
“The GCC nations need reforms to accommodate the changing circumstances brought about by the Arab Spring revolutions,” said al-Dakhil.
The GCC, comprised of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates was formed in 1981 as a security alliance to counter post-revolution Iran.