Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gulf leaders gather amid differences over Gaza summit

Arab Times

MUSCAT, Dec 29, (Agencies): Gulf leaders meeting in Oman on Monday began an annual summit that is set to be clouded by differences over Israel’s three-day-old onslaught against the Islamist Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Qatar has offered to host an emergency Arab summit on the crisis in Doha on Friday, although Arab diplomatic sources in Cairo were quoted on Monday as saying some states do not favour this. After a preparatory meeting of Gulf foreign ministers late on Sunday, regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia made plain its strong reservations about the summit plan. “The ministerial council has not decided about the proposed extraordinary Arab summit, and has referred the matter to the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Wednesday,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said after a marathon five-hour session. “There is no point in attending an Arab summit of statements, without having the right conditions for success and influence,” the official Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was quoted in press reports on Monday as saying such a summit “could be dangerous and subject to criticism, especially if it does not result in practical measures.” The crisis in Gaza, where the Israeli offensive has now killed more than 340 people and wounded 1,550 since Saturday, had threatened to derail preparations for the Gulf summit. The Arab foreign ministers’ meeting now set for Wednesday was originally planned for Sunday, the same day as the preparatory meeting for the summit, but was rescheduled. Differences over Gaza threatened to overshadow the summit’s original agenda, which was dominated by the six Gulf states’ plans for economic integration and combating the global economic crisis.

At the summit opening Oman’s Sultan Qaboos underscored the need to address the global financial crisis, calling for measures to stabilise oil prices. “There is a need to establish a mechanism for stability in oil prices, in a way that it would not burden the consumer... and not harm the producing countries, while it allows their development plans to continue,” he said. The six countries together sit on 25 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and 45 percent of its oil reserves, and can afford to dip into their bulging treasure chests after crude prices hit record levels this year. “The Gulf is not comfortable at all at this level,” he said in an interview. “I think the level we need is towards $60 so that we don’t have any deficits. We (Oman) are obviously, at $45 (a barrel budgeted), are projecting a deficit in the region of $800 mln next year.”

Oil prices have tumbled from a record peak above $147 a barrel in July to around $38.40 a barrel on Monday on concerns about waning global demand amid the financial crisis. Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdulla said the summit would focus on strengthening economic coordination among the six countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain — that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose politic bloc. “They will try to avoid any further damages from the international financial crisis, in that regard there is very strong coordination,” he told Reuters.

Bin Sultan noted that there was a fresh impetus for countries to work together. “Of course some countries have surpluses,” he said. “The problem is when countries have surpluses, coordination doesn’t get priority. The financial crisis will push us for more coordination.” But Gulf rulers were certain to focus at least initially on the bloodshed in Gaza before turning their attentions on how to tackle an oil price slump and a global financial crisis that has brought an end to a six-year regional economic boom. “(Gaza) is the most prominent event on the summit,” Abdel-Rahman al-Attiyah, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), told reporters after an opening session of leaders in the Omani capital, Muscat.

“Gaza was discussed yesterday, has been discussed in the meetings today and will be discussed tomorrow at all levels. It will be reflected in the summit statement and therefore this issue is one of the hottest in the summit.”

The prime minister of Qatar, the only Gulf state with an Israeli envoy, called the attacks “savage and unjustified”. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a telephone conversation that “Arabs feel that Israel had no intention of achieving peace,” the official Qatar news agency reported. But Gaza violence is unlikely to derail the bloc’s economic agenda as they seek to better coordinate fiscal policies to weather a global crisis that has sent major economies, including the United States and Japan, into recession. “It (the agenda) is going to be concentrated on domestic matters, on the economy,” Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah told Reuters.

“They will try to avoid any further damage from the international financial crisis. In that regard, they need very strong coordination.” The Arab foreign ministers are working out an emergency plan for dealing with the ongoing Israeli offensive on Gaza Strip, Arab League Assistant Secretary General for Palestine Affairs Mohammad Subeih said here on Monday. “The suggested plan is an integrated one envisaging political aspects on how to stop the Israeli raids and reconstruction aspects for rehabilitating the health, housing, and infrastructure services in Gaza Strip,” he told KUNA. “The league is coordinating with its member states in developing the comprehensive plan and sending urgent assistance and relief materials to the Palestinian people,” Subeih pointed out..

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