RIYADH (Reuters) - King Abdullah said on Monday the security of Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors was being targeted, in an apparent reference to regional rival Iran, and he called for Gulf Arab states to close ranks in a “single entity.”
“No doubt you all know that we are targeted in our safety and security. That is why we have to take responsibility,” he said, addressing the opening session of a meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has accused Iran of supporting an alleged plot uncovered in October by the United States to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
That month its Interior Ministry also blamed an unnamed foreign power for a violent attack on a police station by members of the kingdom’s Shi‘ite Muslim minority.
Iran, the region’s Shi‘ite giant, has denied the charges, but Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi visited Riyadh last week in an effort to cool tensions.
King Abdullah also suggested that the GCC needed to adapt to new circumstances in the Middle East following the popular uprisings that swept some Arab countries earlier this year.
“We learnt from history and experience not to stand still when faced with our reality,” the king said.
“Whoever does that will end up at the back of the caravan trail and will be lost... That is something we will not accept for the sake of our countries, our people, our stability and our security. That is why I ask of you today to move beyond the stage of cooperation and into the stage of unity in a single entity,” he added.
A Saudi official confirmed to Reuters that the idea of moving the six-nation GCC towards a sort of confederacy had been discussed given its concerns about the regional situation, but only informally, and said that it was an idea for the future.
“It is possible,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former Saudi newspaper editor with strong connections to the royal family.
“Each country has a different system and it would require political will,” he added, suggesting that a possible model was the United Arab Emirates, a GCC member and confederacy where seven sheikhdoms maintain their own internal political systems but have a joint foreign and economic policy.
“If there is the political will to establish such a union, the idea will be more realistic,” said Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, diplomatic adviser to Bahrain’s king, noting that King Abdullah had not gone into detail of how it might be implemented.
While the six states refer to each other in Arabic as “full brothers,” the strongest possible family connection in a tribal society where a father may have had dozens of sons by different wives, they have frequently disagreed on many areas of policy.
Analysts said it was unlikely that the smaller countries would allow more political unity when one of the group was as large and dominant as Saudi Arabia.
“The idea of closer unity as a means of facing up to a potential threat is not new and the actual level of progress they have made thus far has not been astonishing,” said Gary Sick, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at Columbia University in the United States.
“The real test of this will be military cooperation.”
Wearing long robes and fine camel-hair cloaks, the kings, emirs, sheikh and sultan who lead the six GCC states were met on the runway of an air base in central Riyadh by Prince Salman, a brother of King Abdullah who was named defense minister in October.
Saudi Arabia’s octogenarian monarch, who heads the largest Gulf Arab state by size, economy and population, rose to welcome each of his “brotherly leaders,” leaning on his walking stick as they kissed noses in the customary Gulf greeting.
The talks began after the sunset prayer in Riyadh and are expected to continue on Tuesday afternoon.
Bahrain was paralyzed by large protests mounted by its Shi‘ite majority in February that led Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to send in troops at the request of the island state’s Sunni ruling family to help suppress the unrest.
Bahrain accused Iran of encouraging the violence, although an independent commission the government commissioned to investigate the uprising reported last month that it had found no evidence to support that claim.
Qatar in November said it had arrested Bahrainis with connections to Iran who it said had planned to attack the Saudi embassy in Bahrain and blow up a causeway linking the two countries.
Iran has denied the charges, which have raised tensions in the Gulf.
U.S. undersecretary of state David Cohen visited Riyadh and the Bahraini capital Manama in the days before the summit to discuss ways of dealing with Iran and Syria.
After weeks of stalling, Syria on Monday finally signed up to an Arab League plan under which it would end its violent crackdown of popular unrest that has killed over 5,000 people, by a U.N. count, and start dialogue with opposition leaders.
GCC leaders were also expected to agree an aid package for Yemen, where they helped broker an agreement for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power peacefully in response to 10 months of mass protests, an official said.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi met deputy finance ministers from the six Gulf states on Sunday.
In the past year the region has changed profoundly for the six Gulf states, with popular uprisings unseating an ally in Egypt, plunging neighboring Yemen into widespread chaos and pushing Syria in the direction of civil war.
Reporting By Angus McDowall and Asma Alsharif; Editing by Mark Heinrich