Gulf leaders expected to announce unity plan

DUBAI/RIYADH Sun May 13, 2012 5:13am EDT

DUBAI/RIYADH (Reuters) - Gulf Arab leaders meeting on Monday are expected to announce closer political union, starting with two or three countries including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, a government minister in Bahrain said.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might initially seek closer union, local newspapers have reported, as both countries have accused Shi'ite giant Iran of fomenting discontent among Shi'ite Muslims against the Sunni dynasties that rule in both nations.

Tehran denies the charges.

"I expect there will be an announcement of two or three countries. We can't be sure but I have a strong expectation," Samira Rajab, minister of state for information affairs, said on Sunday.

"Sovereignty will remain with each of the countries and they would remain as U.N. members but they would unite in decisions regarding foreign relations, security, military and economy."

The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, meet in Riyadh as they grow increasingly concerned over Iran and al Qaeda after the Arab uprisings.

The protest of majority Shi'ite Muslims in Bahrain against the monarchy that is allied with the United States has not gone away after a year.

Saudi security forces entered Bahrain in March 2011 before a crackdown on the revolt, which Riyadh fears has the potential to spill over into Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite-populated Eastern Province region, where major Saudi oilfields are located. The Saudis also accuse Tehran of instigating protests among their Shi'ite minority.

Bahrain's prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has close ties to the Saudi ruling family, is already in Riyadh, where he was quoted as urging closer integration.

"The great dream of the peoples of the region is to see the day when the borders disappear with a union that creates one Gulf," he told Bahrain News Agency.

Gulf leaders also fear the Arab uprisings last year created more opportunities for al Qaeda to gain a foothold in Yemen, where the discovery of another alleged bomb plot was revealed last week.

Rajab said, however, that there were reservations among some GCC members over the idea of a closer union, and that it was too early to say if any agreement taken among Gulf leaders would require a referendum in Bahrain or not.

Some members of the GCC fear a closer union might grant too much sway to the body's largest member, Saudi Arabia.

Jamal Fakhro, the deputy head of Bahrain's appointed upper house of parliament, said he thought an announcement of Saudi-Bahraini unity unlikely now.

"It will be on the agenda and I think there might be an effort to say that kings and rulers support unity of the GCC countries, but no (formal) announcement," he said.

"It will not be an easy achievement to have one foreign policy between six countries unless it's limited to specific issues," he added.

(Editing by Reed Stevenson and Alessandra Rizzo)

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