20 December  2002 – Doha-Qatar

The GCC Summit held in Doha at the end of December 2002 revealed a loss of cohesion between the six Gulf Cooperation Council States. 
By Adel Darwish  in Doha


GCC: Lives to fight another day

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summits are usually a well orchestrated show of niceties, with all the leg work carried out by the Foreign ministers of the six member nations a day or two before the arrival of the five heads of states to the hosting capital. An army of Arab journalists and a handful of western reporters are usually given a draft of the final communiqué well in advance, affording them the opportunity to enjoy the lavish Arab hospitality on offer. However, the 23d GCC summit in Doha in December 2002 broke the mould.

The meeting came at a crucial time, as the Gulf faced mounting challenges. Despite anticipated American war with Iraq, regarded as imminent at the time of the summit, only two heads of states attended: the host Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al-Thani and Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said. On the eve of the summiteven the six Foreign Ministerscut short their meeting in the Qatari capital, leading to speculationsthatthe group was losing its cohesion as a political and joint security umbrellafor the oil rich Arab States of the Gulf.

When the Council, made up of BahrainKuwaitOmanQatarSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, was established23 years ago, leaders fiercely denied that it was a panic response to the Islamic revolution in Iran. They argued that it was a long overdue step towards creating an Arab common market,a custom union and inevitably a single currency. However, although there has been some progress towards integration, the pace has been painfully slow. Two decades on, the custom union was finally announced in Doha in December, with optimists anticipating single currencyfour years from now. The common defence pact and a joint security force known as Al-Jazeerashield, existed in theory. In practice, however, it has not yet taken off, despite some joint manoeuvres. Some GCC troops participated in Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait in 1991,with Saudi Airforce pilots flying Tornados and F16 doing well against Iraqi flown MIGs, while the Qatari armour repelled the only Iraqi armoured column that managed to advance into Saudi Arabia near al-Khafgi in January 1991- meanwhile causing one of the highest ‘ friendly fire casualty rate of the conflict, among their American allies.

At the Doha meeting, QatarKuwait and UAE wanted to increase the Shield force from5000 to 20,000 strong to deal with the current Iraqi crisis. However there was no agreement on the issue.

Political differences, especially pace of democratisation and reform among the smaller states,patterns of economic activities and foreign trade present a major hurdle to achieve a European Common Market style grouping that once GCC first Secretary Dr Abdallah Bisharah so keenly advocated back in the 1980s.

After 23 years of claims of success as ‘ rapidly moving towardsthe first Arab Common Market,’ it seemed a single issue – the question of forming an alliance with the United States in dealing with threats from the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein- threatened the political entente among GCC members as it emerged in Doha in December.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al- Faisal was the first to leave the ministerial meeting after 80 minutesfollowed by others a few minutes later. The ministerial meeting customary goes on for several hours because it is the time and place where all the deals aremade and the agenda is cleaned up for the leaders to sign next day. The Doha summit had some 35 items of economic, political and security issues on the agenda but few satisfactory resolutions were reached. 

Observing diplomats in Doha interpreted a low level delegationbySaudi Arabiathe largest of the GCC membersas a snub to the organiser Qatar . Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abdelazizi, who runs the affairs of the Kingdom since King Fahad’sailment in 1995 stayed away. Bahrain’s King, sheikh Hamad bin Issa, following the Saudi lead, also failed to attend. Relying on Saudi economic and security support, Bahrain has historically always taken positions closer to Saudi Arabia than the rest if its gulf neighbours. Poor health kept both Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Jabber al-Sabbah andUnitedArab Emirate’s President Sheikh Zayyed away leaving only two heads of states to attend the summit: Sultan Qaboos and the host Sheikh Hamad.

Also cons piquesby their absence were the dozens Saudi Journalists, who normally flood events of this nature in a region they consider as Saudi Arabia’s unchallenged sphere of influence. In fact, leading up to and during the summit, Saudi media kept the coverage to a minimum on the inside pages.

The Saudi owned London based daily Al-Hayat, quoting ‘top diplomatic sources’ , was the first to run a front page report early in December that the Kingdom would send a low level delegation. The story was filed by a Jeddah based Lebanese reporter who, as Arab diplomats pointed out, would not have considered making such revelations without some sort of official nod. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh HamadBinJabr Al-Thani, made a light hearted, but well aimed joke at the reporter, about spinning his own web, during a press conference that followed the lastsession of the summit.

Normally tight-lipped Saudi Arabian officials, leaked to the media their displeasure with both the timing and the location of the summit. Coming at the highest of the Iraqi crisis, the Saudis and other Arabs in the Gulf have declared that they were against any military action in Iraq

Relations between the oil rich desert Kingdom and the United States deteriorated after education system in the kingdom came under criticism. American columnists and commentators lined up to condemned the education system’s  role in encouraging anti-western militant Islam.’Fourteenof the 19 hijackers of September 11 were Saudi nationals.

‘The Saudis criticise Qatar for trying to play a role as America’s main ally in the region,’ said a senior western diplomat in Doha. Only 48 hours before the summit General Richard Myers, the United States Joint Chief of staff was in Doha to oversee joint military exercise. America moved its Gulf operations HQ from Saudi Arabia to Al Udhied base in Qatar which is expected to be the base of the coming military operation against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Saudis are still are irritated by Qatar, one of the smaller nations of the Gulf that took giant steps towards economic and political reform and openness, as well as taking small but positive steps towards peace like accepting an Israeli trade mission in Doha.

Riyadh is also not amused by the open and free style reporting of the Doha based Pan Arab al-Jazeera satellite TV network. Its trade mark of live talk shows where gusts don’t pull punches in criticising Arab regimes have upset the conservative Saudis. 

In recent months a bunch of Palestinianand Arab nationalists have over stepped the mark – even by western free speech standard – in their attacks on Saudi Arabia and its current as well as historic leaders. 

Although al-Jazeera is independent, it is supported by Qatargovernment and a generous grant from the Emir shored it up during financial difficulties. 

On the eve of the summit Qatari press reported that five billion dollars where offered to Shut down or tame al-Jazeera, but no details where coming out on who made the offer. 

Emir of Qtar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, in 2001 turned down requests by President George Bush diplomatic envoys to muzzle al-Jazeerareminding hisguests of first amendment of the American constitution.‘ The Emir genuinely believe in free speech and see freeing the media from the straight jackets of Arab governments as a key to developing the Arab mind,’ a top western diplomat said. He was the first Arab ruler to abolish the ministry of information, which plays a censorship role in all Arabic speaking nations without exception.

The Saudis also suspect Qatar of trying to replace them as America’s main ally in the region, according to western diplomats. The two nations announced a new treaty for use of military basis in Qatar

Arab nationalists and left wing columnists and commentators have used pages on Saudi controlled newspapers to criticise Qatar for hosting the American bases that would serve as a launch-padfor war against saddam Hussein.

However, Qataris say that American basis are every where in the Gulf and reject being singled out for criticism. ‘It is only because Qatar’s declared policy is no different from its actual policy on the ground,’ said a senior Qatari official adding thatwhen it comes to policy on Iraq and American basis, Qatar’s position is no different from any other Arab Gulf state, I thus find it difficult to comprehend criticism from other states.’

Analysts and Arab diplomats in Dohainterprted the differences which threatened the GCC summit as a reflection of the general disarray afflicting Arab politics in general and gulf politics in particulars.

Most Arab journalists’ questionsduring a press conference by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr, were unusually hostile. They accusedQatar of ‘aiding aggression against a fellow Arab country,’ and not doing enough for the Palestinian.

Defending his nation’s record in giving material and financial aid to the Palestinians, Mr Bin Jabr said his government, in line withglasnost,doesn’t keep its foreign and military agreements secrete from the people. ‘ contrary to old Arab wisdom’ said Mr Bin Jabr , ‘ we don’t followthe saying : let secrecy be your best ally in your missions.’He repeated advice to Iraqtofully implement Resolution 1441.

After two days of heated debates and squabbling behind closed doors, the summiteers issued a communiqué that surprised diplomats and provoked the hostile line of questions from Arab journalists.

Unexpectedly, the five other Gulf nationslined up behind Kuwait in standing firm to Saddam Hussein ’s threats accusing Iraq of disregardingGCC, Arab summits and UN resolutions. They condemned Mr Hussein’s December 7 speech as ‘containing untrue allegations against Kuwait,’ and accused him of ‘inciting violence, supporting and encouraging terrorism.’The Iraqi leader called upon Kuwaitis to attack American and British troops based in Kuwait, when the speech was supposed to be an apology to Kuawities for invading their nation.

The Kuwaitis saw the speech as aggressive and another threat as he didn’t recognise Kuwait as a sovereign State and accused the Government of Kuwait of generating the 1990 crisis and ‘stealing’ oil from Iraq. He also declined tomention over 600 Kuwait prisoners in Iraq since 1990.

Diplomats in Doha agreed that Qatar‘sEmir Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim, as a host of thesummit and his Foreign minister Mr Bin Jabr have achieved a great success against mounting odds. The salvaging the summit by focusing on economic issues like Custom Union with a 5% single tariff that started last t month ( jan 03). Although the figure seems to be a compromise between 7.5% demanded by theSaudis and 3.5 % which Dubai – whose ruler Sheikh Rashid represented the UAE in the summit-pushed for. 

Meanwhile Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud has been consulting with Arab partners as well as Americans and British to put a new initiative to an Arab summit for a proposal to the Iraqis to persuade Saddam Hussein to resign to spare Iraq a destructive war, according to diplomatic sources. 

It is remain to be seen whether Qatar’s national and regional success in politics, economic and diplomacy could be translated into a successful Pan Arab summit that might avert the warby offering the Iraqi dictator a face saving way out of power.

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