Gulf Arab envoys study proposals for greater ties
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Gulf Arab leaders have had no problems speaking in a common voice about efforts to fend off opposition inspired by the Arab Spring and the ambitions of their rival, Iran. On Monday, the region's envoys will examine whether to carry that unity to the next level with proposals that foresee a super-state stretching from Kuwait to Oman.
The meeting in Riyadh could endorse what has already happened: An effective "union" between Saudi Arabia and protest-wracked Bahrain whose embattled monarchy has been aided by Saudi troops and money.
But the Saudi-led vision for fully coordinated security and political policies still appears a hard sell across the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. There are concerns about how much clout would be handed to Saudi Arabia as the bloc's de facto power, and whether its ultraconservative views could cast shadows over Western-friendly centers such as Dubai and Doha.
Worries about Saudi dominance have already frozen plans for a common Gulf currency.
"For all the sense more GCC integration makes, the challenges to a European Union-like structure is fraught with questions, challenges and potential pitfalls," said an editorial Monday in the Abu Dhabi-based The National newspaper, which often reflects the views of United Arab Emirates' authorities.
Without doubt, however, the upheavals of the Arab Spring have forced stronger collective action from the Western-allied group, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE.
The Gulf Arab states have stepped up their international roles to openly support rebel forces in places such as Libya and Syria.
At the same time, they have bonded together in clampdowns on perceived opposition groups in the Gulf and have taken a hard line against Shiite giant Iran, which it accuses of encouraging protests against the Sunni ruling systems in Bahrain and elsewhere. Iran denies the claims.
Last year, Saudi forces led 1,500 Gulf troops into tiny Bahrain to help prop up the kingdom's Sunni dynasty against a Shiite-led uprising, which is now in its 15th month. The result has been a virtual melding of the two countries on the ground -- with the Saudi and Bahraini flags often displayed in unison at the airport and some security checkpoints.
Washington has stayed cautiously on the sidelines in the Bahrain unrest. It has denounced the violence -- which has claimed at least 50 lives since February 2011 -- but does not want to anger key ally Saudi Arabia or jeopardize the standing of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.
Last week, the Obama administration said it would resume some arms shipments to Bahrain that were suspended last year because of the crackdowns, which have included hundreds of arrests. The State Department said it still had human rights concerns, but was releasing the equipment because Bahrain is an "important security partner." The American equipment includes harbor patrol boats and upgrades to F-16 fighter engines, but the U.S. says it does contain crowd control material.
Bahrain's minister of state for information affairs, Samira Rajab, said she expected formal backing of a Bahrain-Saudi union pact at Monday's meeting. Although no clear blueprint has been made public, she described it as a common stance on critical policies such as defense, economy and foreign affairs.
Opposition groups in Bahrain, however, have strongly denounced the calls for tighter bonds with Saudi Arabia and possibly other Gulf states. The head of Bahrain's main Shiite political group, Al Wefaq, said referendums should be held to determine support for closer Gulf union.
"This is how governments that respect their people deal with such matters," said Sheik Ali Salman. "While here, the union is forcefully imposed, which shows how the governments, here, are just looking down on their peoples."
In Tehran, about 190 lawmakers -- more than half Iran's parliament -- issued a statement condemning the plan for greater security cooperation among the GCC states, calling it a plan for making Bahrain "united" with Saudi Arabia.
"This will relay Bahrain's crisis to Saudi Arabia and drive the region toward more unrest. It will add to the problems," said the statement, which was read on Iranian state radio.
Tensions between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors were further enflamed last month after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the island Abu Musa, part of a three-island group controlled by Iran but also claimed by the UAE. After the visit, the UAE led a war exercise in the region that was dubbed "Islands of Loyalty."
Meanwhile, Bahraini Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa was quoted Sunday as saying the "great dream" of the region is to see the "borders disappear with a union that creates one Gulf" entity.
The GCC, created in 1981, holds frequent discussions on region-wide policies and development initiatives, but member states have wide autonomy.
"The UAE has spent many years forging an independent stance in world affairs," said the editorial in The National."Closer integration with its neighbors is welcome, but not at the expense of losing the country's unique influence."