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Qatar emir skips Saudi-hosted summit with Gulf rivals

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has decided to stay away from a Saudi-hosted summit of Arab Gulf leaders despite receiving an invite from Riyadh amid a deep 18-month-old dispute between the neighbouring countries © AFP / KARIM JAAFAR

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec 9 – Qatar’s emir skipped a summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday with fellow Arab Gulf leaders whose boycott of the small but energy-flush neighbour has sparked a major regional diplomatic row.

Riyadh is hosting the annual gathering as crises rumble on over the 18-month-old dispute with Doha, the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

The regional powerhouse had invited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council talks, but the foreign ministry in Doha said he would not go.

Instead Qatar was represented by the minister of state for foreign affairs, Sultan al-Muraikhi, it said.

Saudi forces guard the Diriya Palace in Riyadh during a Gulf Cooperation Council summit on December 9, 2018 © AFP / Fayez Nureldine

Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, severed diplomatic ties with Doha in 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism and fostering close ties with their regional rival Iran.

Doha — which announced this month it was quitting the Saudi-dominated OPEC oil cartel — denies the allegations, but the dispute has dragged on.

Speaking at the start of the summit, Saudi King Salman accused Iran of “continuing to interfere in the affairs of the countries in the region”.

He stressed the importance of the GCC and the need to “defend, in collaboration with our partners, security and stability in the Gulf”.

Kuwait, which along with fellow GCC member Oman has stayed out of the worst political fallout from the Qatar row, has tried unsuccessfully to mediate a solution to the dispute.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is under mounting pressure over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate © AFP/File / RYAD KRAMDI

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah called for “an end to media campaigns that have sowed discord (among the peoples of the region) to pave the way for reconciliation”.

The GCC was formed in 1981 at the height of the Iraq-Iran war and two years after the Islamic revolution in Tehran sparked concern in Sunni-led Gulf states, many of which have sizable Shiite populations, including in Bahrain.

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GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani has said the summit would review ties with Iran after the US reimposed an oil embargo and other sanctions on Tehran following Washington’s withdrawal from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

– Saudi prince under pressure –

Saudi Arabia, along with allies the UAE and Bahrain, accuses Tehran of fomenting unrest among Shiites in the Gulf, and has backed the US in piling pressure on Iran.

This contrasts with Kuwait and Oman which prefer normalising ties with the Islamic republic.

No major announcements are expected to come out of Sunday’s summit.

The war in Yemen has killed around 10,000 people since 2015, according to the World Health Organization © AFP/File / Saleh Al-OBEIDI

The meeting comes as delegations from the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iran-linked Shiite rebels hold UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden.

Yemen’s capital has been held since 2014 by Huthi rebels who drove the government out and seized a string of ports.

The Yemeni government, based in the southern port city of Aden, has fought to push back the rebels with support from a military coalition led by Riyadh and the UAE.

King Salman defended the coalition’s intervention in Yemen and called for a “political solution” in the impoverished country.

The conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people since 2015 when the coalition intervened, according to the World Health Organization, though some rights group say the toll could be five times higher.

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The UN calls it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with as many as 20 million Yemenis facing acute food shortages.

Murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was a former Saudi royal insider turned critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman © AFP/File / Yasin AKGUL

Pressure has been piling up on Riyadh to ease off its offensive, particularly an assault launched in June on the rebel-held port city of Hodeida, a key lifeline for aid entering Yemen.

The summit comes with Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, under mounting pressure over the murder of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi.

A critic of the crown prince, Khashoggi was killed by a hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 in what the kingdom described as a rogue operation.

Riyadh has steadfastly denied claims the grisly murder of the Saudi journalist was ordered by Prince Mohammed.

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