"It is alarming to see some members of the GCC enter into separate bilateral agreements with international powers in both the security and economic spheres, taking precedence over the need to act collectively," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a conference on security in the Gulf on Sunday.

"These separate arrangements are not compatible with the spirit of the charter of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]). They diminish the collective-bargaining power and weaken not only the solidarity of the GCC as a whole but also each of its members in both the intermediate and long terms," he said.

"In the economic sphere, the agreements entered into are in clear violation of the GCC's economic accords and decisions.

Prince Saud added: "What is more important, these agreements impede the progressive steps needed to achieve full Gulf economic integration. They will ultimately negatively impact the economic sectors in all GCC countries, which in turn will have dire consequences and adversely affect the GCC business community."

Defence agreements

The GCC groups are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The group launched a customs union in 2003 and is due to hold a summit in the Bahraini capital Manama later this month.

"They will ultimately negatively impact the economic sectors in all GCC countries, which in turn will have dire consequences and adversely affect the GCC business community"

Saud al-Faisal,
Saudi foreign minister

Saudi Arabia is the only GCC state that is not a member of the World Trade Organisation. In September, Bahrain signed a free-trade agreement with the United States.

In 2002, Kuwait renewed for a second 10-year term a defence pact with the US. It also has a defence pact with Britain.

Qatar also signed a defence agreement with the US in 2002.

US President George Bush's administration announced last month that it would begin negotiations next year on free trade deals with the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Bahrain reaction

The administration hopes to strike these separate deals on the way to creating a free trade area covering the entire Middle East over the next decade.

Prince Saud stressed that the GCC states must realise that their individual and collective needs are best served by uniting economically and militarily, and developing a clear security strategy.

"We think that what Bahrain has done is within the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement. We are happy with it"

Shaikh Muhammad bin Mubarak al-Khalifa,
Bahraini foreign minister

Following the Saudi Arabian minister's comments, Bahrain's foreign minister defended his country's recent free trade agreement with the United States.

"We think that what Bahrain has done is within the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement," said Shaikh Muhammad bin Mubarak al-Khalifa. "We are happy with it."

The US Congress will vote as early as February on the free trade agreement with Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet and the first country in the region to reach such a deal with the US.