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Gulf leaders quit GCC summit, as UAE strikes military pact with Saudis

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will only send low-ranking officials to the summit meeting in Kuwait
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (R) with UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash (C) during an Arab League meeting in Cairo (AFP)

The leaders of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pulled out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Kuwait, hours after the latter two agreed to form a separate military and political alliance.

The three countries instead sent lower-ranking officials to the GCC meeting Tuesday in Kuwait City, while Kuwait, Oman and Qatar will still send senior officials.

Most notably, Qatar's emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is set to attend, despite the diplomatic deadlock with the other GCC countries.

It was also announced that the summit would be cut short by a day, with the meeting concluding on Tuesday.

Just hours before the meeting, UAE and Saudi Arabia announced they had agreed to form a joint military, economic and political partnership.

According to a UAE foreign ministry statement, the new "Joint Cooperation Committee" will see the two countries cooperating in "military, political, economic, trade and cultural fields". It will be chaired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, and the UAE's deputy prime minister, Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

There was no immediate confirmation from Saudi authorities.

The two countries are already close military allies, including in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Michael Stephens, head of RUSI Qatar, told Middle East Eye that the deal likely reflected the actuality of the Gulf's modern alliances.

"Clearly it's a de jure announcement of a de facto reality," he said.

"Nevertheless it's hard not to see it as a snub to the GCC as a structure - I'm not quite sure what that's supposed to achieve but it doesn't appear to be a hugely stabilising development."

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, together with Egypt, cut all ties with Qatar on 5 June, accusing the gas-rich emirate of supporting Islamist militants and being too close to Shia Iran, Riyadh's arch-rival. Qatar denies the allegations.

Crispin Blunt, former head of the UK's Foreign Affairs Committee and MP for Reigate, said the UK government was working behind the scenes to try get a resolution to the six-month-old rift.

“This doesn’t strike me as anything other than another iteration of the row,” he said.

“Our pressure is being applied to both sides to sort it out. [The row is] not doing anyone any good at all.”

Ben Rhodes, a former foreign policy adviser for Barack Obama, sardonically remarked on Twitter that the UAE-Saudi alliance would "make it more efficient for them to give orders to the Trump administration".

GCC in crisis

Mediation efforts led by Kuwait have failed to resolve what is the worst crisis to hit the GCC in its 36-year history, casting serious doubts over the future of the six-state alliance.

On Monday, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar attended round-table talks ahead of the gathering, in their first such encounter since the diplomatic crisis erupted in June.

Oman's foreign minister, Yussef bin Alawi, sat between them at the meeting which the foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait also attended.

After cutting off all ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed a land, sea and air blockade of the emirate and issued a list of 13 demands in order for it to be lifted.

In October, Bahrain called for Qatar's membership of the GCC to be suspended until it accepted the demands.

Experts warn that the crisis could lead to the demise of the once-powerful GCC.

"The justifications for the existence of the GCC bloc amidst the continued crisis are no longer present like before," said Sami al-Faraj, head of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies.

"As long as our enemy has changed from Iran to Qatar, the GCC will not continue."

The failure of the GCC members to solidify long-delayed plans for economic unity may also threaten its future.

The Gulf states' trade relations with the UK - currently worth more than $40bn annually - will be crucial after it leaves the European Union in 2019.

But as the row continues, how those deals will be hammered out remains in flux, said Blunt.

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“For post-Brexit deals, the UK would obviously prefer to go with the GCC and make it a GCC deal,” he said.

“If the GCC is not working, we’ll have to look at what is doable bilaterally.” Right now, he said, UK-Saudi and UK-Qatari relations are both in a “decent place”.

The Gulf states have approved a customs union, a common market, a single currency and a single central bank, but most of these have yet to be implemented.

Speaking at Monday's meeting, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah stressed the determination of member states to preserve the GCC.

"The GCC is a continuous project in which the will of member states meets to build a unified Gulf body," he said.

- Additional reporting by AFP

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