Gulf leaders focus on union, Iran ties

KUWAIT CITY - Leaders of the oil-rich Gulf states meet in Kuwait on Tuesday to discuss plans to boost integration at a time of differences over a proposed union and ties with Iran.

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 tackle the Syrian conflict.

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 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.

Kuwait's State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Sabah, however, 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 summit.

"Oman does not want to be a part of any measure than might be seen as directed against Iran," Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah told AFP.

Besides Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, the GCC comprises Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

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 US-led world powers over its controversial nuclear programme.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohamad Jawad Zarif last week toured four GCC countries, but not Saudi Arabia and 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.

On the conflict in Syria, the GCC summit will also discuss the proposed Geneva peace talks and a "Kuwait 2" donors conference, both to be held next month.

The leader of the Syrian mainstream opposition, the National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, made his first official visit to Kuwait ahead of the summit.

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 US$2 trillion (S$2.5 trillion), expected to grow to US$2.4 trillion in 2014.