Gulf Arab leaders have gathered in the Qatari capital for a summit expected to push forward plans for a unified military command and an Interpol-like agency to counter regional foe Iran and armed jihadist groups.

Tuesday’s meeting of the heads of states from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was inaugurated in Doha by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who spoke of the need to address “terrorism”.

“We have no choice but to face terrorism,” he said in his opening statement. “Terrorism prevention is better than trying to cure it after it expands”.

The Kuwaiti Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah said in the opening ceremony said the presence of different views among the Gulf States is “natural”, but that it should develop into a standoff.

The bloc is expected to issue a joint communique later on Tuesday.

The annual meeting comes after an eight-month diplomatic spat in the bloc which pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain against Qatar over its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

The threat from terrorist groups is so overstated. The leaders of the GCC focused so much on the security collaboration that it became an obsession. How is an ordinary Kuwaiti, or Qatari or Bahraini or Saudi benefiting from the GCC?

- Professor Shamlan al-Issa, Kuwait University

The Brotherhood, from which toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi hailed, has been labelled a "terrorist organisation" by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The other two GCC members, Kuwait and Oman, tried to stay neutral.

A reconciliation meeting attended by the six foreign ministers three weeks ago in the Saudi capital Riyadh, appears to have eased tensions and paved the way for the one-day summit.

"The fact that the meeting is taking place is in itself a success. For the Gulf leaders to come to Qatar after all that happened is a big event," Abdul Aziz Aluwaisheg, assistant secretary-general of the GCC, told Al Jazeera.

Aluwaisheg said the summit would focus on boosting security cooperation and adopting a multi-layered strategy in "the fight against terrorism".

The council is expected to discuss kick-starting the work of a military joint command, which would be based in Riyadh.

The bloc is also planning to invigorate the GCC-POL, a UAE-based law enforcement agency for sharing intelligence and dealing with organised crime.

"The military command will allow the GCC to deal better with outside threats, especially from Iran, while the GCC-POL was formed to share information to combat terrorist organisations," Anwar Ishqi, a former Lieutenant in the Saudi army and the director of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, told Al Jazeera.

The falling oil prices are also expected to be extensively discussed at the summit, especially as some of bloc's oil-exporting members were already talking about the need to reform state spending and diversify away from energy.

The Sunni-dominated GCC countries and Shia Iran have long been regional enemies, supporting competing factions in other Arab countries, often along sectarian lines.

ISIL makes threats

Saudi Arabia's government has been especially on edge since September, when Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa, expanding beyond their traditional stronghold near the Saudi border.

"Yemen is an existential threat. What happened in Yemen determines the fate of the GCC. It is the most populous country in the Arabian Peninsula and the poorest of them," Joseph Keshishian, an author on Middle East affairs and a columnist with Gulf News, told Al Jazeera.

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"The GCC have stopped their reconciliatory efforts in Yemen after the dramatic development of the Houthis taking over. They will have to make a decision on what to do next."

GCC countries are also alarmed by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken over much of Iraq and Syria and declared a widely unrecognised "caliphate". 

The group, which views the Gulf's royal families as illegitimate rulers of Muslims, has threatened military attacks in the region and has also attracted hundreds of young men from the Gulf to join its ranks. It is now being targeted by a US-led air strike campaign. 

The bloc's focus on military and security cooperation could come at the expense of what some observers called more essential cooperation on economic and social issues.

"The threat from terrorist groups is so overstated. The leaders of the GCC focus so much on security collaboration that it has become an obsession. How is an ordinary Kuwaiti, or Qatari or Bahraini or Saudi benefiting from the GCC?" Professor Shamlan al-Issa of Kuwait University said.

"Why do not they ease trade and investment restrictions, allow for freedom of movement, and share cultural and educational projects?"

 

Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter@Basma_ 

Source: Al Jazeera