Regional issues cast pall over summit of Gulf states

Row with Qatar ongoing, while Saudis feel heat over Khashoggi killing, Yemen war

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia hosted a summit of Arab Gulf leaders yesterday amid a bitter diplomatic dispute with Qatar, the war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The regional powerhouse had invited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) talks, but Qatar's foreign ministry said he will not go. Instead, Qatar will be represented by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan al-Muraikhi, it said.

Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), severed diplomatic ties with Doha last year. They accused it of supporting terrorism and fostering close ties with their regional rival Iran.

Doha - which this month announced it was quitting the Saudi-dominated Opec oil cartel - denies the allegations, but the dispute has dragged on.

"Qatar has burned all the bridges enabling it to take back" its place in the GCC, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad Al-Khalifa said in the run-up to the summit.

GCC secretary-general Abdellatif al-Zayani has said the 39th summit in Riyadh would review ties with Iran after the United States reimposed an oil embargo and other sanctions on Teheran.

The US administration, which pulled out from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Teheran and major world powers in May, has vowed to reduce Iran's oil sales to zero.


Saudi Arabia, along with allies UAE and Bahrain, accuses Teheran of fomenting unrest among Shi'ites in the Gulf, and has backed the US in piling pressure on Iran.

This contrasts with the stance taken by Kuwait and Oman, which prefer normalising ties with the Islamic republic. Kuwait has also been mediating between its Gulf partners and Qatar.

Yesterday's summit also came as delegations from the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-linked Shi'ite rebels hold United Nations-brokered peace talks in Sweden.

Yemen's capital has been held since 2014 by Houthi rebels, who drove the government out and seized a string of ports. The Yemeni government, based in the southern port city of Aden, has fought to drive back the rebels with support from a military coalition led by Riyadh and the UAE.

According to the World Health Organisation, the conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people since 2015, when the coalition intervened. However, some rights groups have said the toll could be five times higher.

The UN has called it the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with as many as 20 million Yemenis facing acute food shortages.

This and images of massive devastation after coalition bombing raids on Yemen have sparked outrage among rights groups, and prompted global players to demand an end to the conflict.

Pressure has been piling up on Riyadh to ease off its offensive, particularly an assault launched in June on the rebel-held port city of Hodeida - a key lifeline for aid entering Yemen.

The summit also comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are under mounting pressure over the murder of Mr Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. A critic of the Crown Prince, Mr Khashoggi was killed by a hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 in what Saudi Arabia described as a rogue operation.

Riyadh has steadfastly denied claims that his grisly murder - he was reportedly dismembered - was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed.


Counterbalance to Shi'ite influence

RIYADH • The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional counterweight to Shi'ite Iran, comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

It was formed in May 1981, at the height of the Iraq-Iran war, and two years after the Islamic revolution in Iran sent tremors across the Sunni-led Gulf states, many of which have sizeable Shi'ite populations.

The mostly desert GCC has a population of some 50 million, half of whom are expatriates.

Only Kuwait and Bahrain have elected chambers with legislative powers.

The six nations are ruled by family dynasties and ban political parties.

In 1984 the GCC formed a joint military ground force dubbed Peninsula Shield, but it was not able to prevent the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990.

Since US-led forces drove Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991, GCC members have individually signed major defence pacts with Washington.

GCC states managed to dodge the pro-democracy protests unleashed by the 2011 Arab Spring, except for Bahrain, where the authorities crushed Shi'ite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

At the height of the unrest - in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds of mainly Shi'ite activists were detained - the Gulf force rolled into Bahrain in March 2011 to back up the kingdom's security forces.

The GCC has sought to deepen economic links among members by approving a common market, customs union, a shared currency and central bank, but most of the decisions have not been put into practice.

The GCC allows for the free movement of citizens and capital, but restrictions on hundreds of economic activities remain.

Despite long-running projects aimed at diversification, the economies of the member countries are heavily dependent on oil, which make up around 90 per cent of total public revenues.

Average per capita income across the six countries is around US$27,400 (S$37,540).

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said last month that growth in the Gulf will pick up this year but will remain vulnerable due to volatile oil prices.

The economies of the GCC countries should grow by 2.4 per cent this year and 3 per cent next year, after a contraction of 0.4 per cent last year, the IMF forecast.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2018, with the headline 'Regional issues cast pall over summit of Gulf states'. Print Edition | Subscribe