Saudi King Abdullah urges GCC ‘to move from phase of cooperation to phase of union’

GCC leaders speak before their summit in Riyadh. From left: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Sultan Qaboos bin Saiid of Oman, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed. (Reuters)

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz called for the formation of a Gulf union in response to growing threats, as rulers of the wealthy Arab GCC met on Monday against a backdrop of regional turmoil and fears over Iran.

“I ask today that we move from a phase of cooperation to a phase of union within a single entity,” said the Saudi king, addressing his counterparts at the opening of the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh.

He did not elaborate on what form such a union might take, or any proposed steps to create it.

“You must realize that our security and stability are threatened and we need to live up to our responsibilities,” said King Abdullah.

“Our summit opens in the shadow of challenges that require vigilance and a united stance,” he added, according to AFP.

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.

The GCC summit comes as the embattled regime of Syria, rocked by a nine-month uprising the U.N. estimates has killed at least 5,000 people, agreed to an Arab League proposal to send observers to the country.

In a clear reference to Syria, the Saudi king urged the Gulf bloc to help their “Arab brothers so that the blood stops flowing and to guard against the risks of foreign intervention.”

Arab uprisings on the agenda

In addition to Syria, the Gulf leaders will discuss the situation in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where popular uprisings have already unseated entrenched dictators this year.

GCC member Bahrain was also hit by a month of unrest in March, while demonstrators in neighboring Yemen forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign a power transfer deal.

In Kuwait, the cabinet resigned last month over allegations of corruption and a new government was sworn in on Wednesday with only minor changes to the previous government.

They are also expected to discuss their fears of the growing influence of arch-foe Iran after the U.S. pullout from Iraq.

King Abdullah said the security of Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors was being targeted, in an apparent reference to Iran.

“No doubt you all know that we are targeted in our safety and security. That is why we have to take responsibility,” he said, according to Reuters.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has accused Iran of supporting an alleged plot uncovered in October by the United States to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

That month its Interior Ministry also blamed an unnamed foreign power for a violent attack on a police station by members of the kingdom's Shiite Muslim minority.

Iran, the region’s Shiite giant, has denied the charges, but Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi visited Riyadh last week in an effort to cool tensions.

Qatar in November said it had arrested Bahrainis with connections to Iran who it said had planned to attack the Saudi embassy in Bahrain and blow up a causeway linking the two countries.

Iran has denied the charges, which have raised tensions in the Gulf.

New Mideast strategy

King Abdullah also suggested that the GCC needed to adapt to new circumstances in the Middle East following the popular uprisings that swept some Arab countries earlier this year.

“We learnt from history and experience not to stand still when faced with our reality,” the king said.

“Whoever does that will end up at the back of the caravan trail and will be lost... That is something we will not accept for the sake of our countries, our people, our stability and our security. That is why I ask of you today to move beyond the stage of cooperation and into the stage of unity in a single entity,” he added.

A Saudi official confirmed to Reuters that the idea of moving the six-nation GCC towards a sort of confederacy had been discussed given its concerns about the regional situation, but only informally, and said that it was an idea for the future.

“It is possible,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor with strong connections to the royal family.

“Each country has a different system and it would require political will,” he added, suggesting that a possible model was the United Arab Emirates, a GCC member and confederacy where seven sheikhdoms maintain their own internal political systems but have a joint foreign and economic policy.

“If there is the political will to establish such a union, the idea will be more realistic,” said Muhammed Abdul Ghaffar, diplomatic adviser to Bahrain’s king, noting that King Abdullah had not gone into detail of how it might be implemented.

While the six states refer to each other in Arabic as “full brothers,” the strongest possible family connection in a tribal society where a father may have had dozens of sons by different wives, they have frequently disagreed on many areas of policy.

Along their two-day summit, GCC leaders were also expected to agree an aid package for Yemen, where they helped broker an agreement for President Saleh to step down from power peacefully in response to 10 months of mass protests, an official said.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi met deputy finance ministers from the six Gulf states on Sunday.

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