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Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Camp David dominated by fears over Iran

John Kerry meeting GCC heads in September 2014
John Kerry meeting GCC heads in September 2014 Reuters/Brendan Smialowski

US president Barack Obama met with leaders of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council Thursday at Camp David. Obama invited GCC members Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to address possible fears over Washington’s ongoing negotiations with Tehran.

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Days before the meeting started, the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, indicated that he would not take part in the meeting, sending instead two of his sons to represent him.

“The meeting has already failed because of the absence of the King of Saudi Arabia, which is the unofficial leader of the Arab Gulf States,” says outspoken critic Eithan Gilboa of Bar Ilan University.

He points out that Salman’s absence equals a complete rejection of the negotiations with Iran and the deal.

“It means that the Arab states are assuming that this is going to be a bad deal, and that they have to cope with its ramifications for themselves and for the region,” he said.

Other observers from the region reason along the same lines.

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef [who heads the Saudi delegation] has full authority, but the move could be interpreted as the Saudis did not feel that the Americans were willing to provide guarantees in terms of security and defence cooperation and anticipated dealing with the Iran issue,” says Riad Khawadji, the CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“Moreover the Saudis are not asking for weapons, they are asking for joint work with the US in confronting Iran expansion in the region,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, observers wait and see what comes out of the meeting. “The Saudis and the Qataris try to paint Iran as some sort of antagonist, whereas in reality the problem has little to do with Iran,” says Muhammad Marandi of Tehran University.

“Countries like Saudi and Qatar deal with a strong sense of a lack of self-confidence,” he says, generated by their nature of being “family-run countries that don’t have real support from any form of civil society.”

“So they are always feeling vulnerable. Whereas their real vulnerability comes from their problems at home rather than from abroad,” he says

Apart from Iran, closed-door discussions centered around strategic problems including the situations in Syria and Yemen.

And in the weeks preceding the meeting, human rights activists have tried to convince US President Barack Obama to talk about the plight of dozens of human rights defenders currently jailed.

“What we’re asking is that this meeting shouldn’t only be about the Gulf monarchs’ concerns with regard to the Iran nuclear deal and the security situation in the region in general,” says Maryam Khawadji, co-founder of the Gulf Center of Human Rights.

In a three-page letter addressed to the US president, she urged the release of “all detained human rights defenders across the region,” including Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”.

However, in the past human rights activists often expressed frustration over Washington’s reluctance to criticise Gulf countries, ascribing it to “US strategic and commercial interests” and the US presence of its fifth fleet in Bahrain.

Talking about the civil war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is engaged in direct military intervention by way of air strikes, Mohammad Marandi sees a slight change of attitude in Washington’s diplomacy.

“The Americans have recognised that this war has been an utter failure and it has angered and united the people of Yemen against the Saudi regime," he said. "So it is really best for the United States to start pushing Saudi Arabia to start behaving in a more reasonable manner.”

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