Gulf leaders gather amid deepening regional threats

Friday 01/05/2015
Growing concern over Yemen

RIYADH - Gulf monarchs gathered Tuesday for an extraordinary summit amid growing international concern over the Saudi-led air war against Shiite rebels in Yemen and a deepening regional threat from jihadists.

French President Francois Hollande became the first Western leader to sit in on a summit of the Sunni-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council.

The meeting is also expected to air concerns over a potential final nuclear deal with Shiite Iran.

The Riyadh summit brings together leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Their formal talks are taking place in a domed meeting hall surrounded by palm trees at the sprawling Diriyah Palace complex on the edge of Riyadh.

All but Oman are in the Saudi-led coalition that launched air strikes in Yemen on March 26 against Iran-backed Huthi rebels and their allies who seized large parts of the country including Sanaa.

Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled to Riyadh when the rebels advanced on his southern refuge of Aden.

Anti-government forces have refused to concede territory or lay down their weapons despite international pressure.

Concern has mounted over the air strikes, which continued despite the coalition announcing late last month it was moving to a new phase.

The United Nations says at least 1,200 people have been killed in Yemen since March 19, and has repeatedly warned that the already impoverished Arabian Peninsula state faces a major humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia has said it is considering temporary halts in air strikes to allow aid deliveries.

Hollande's trip comes as Paris strengthens its political and economic relations with the oil and gas-rich Gulf monarchies.

He arrived in Riyadh from fellow GCC member Qatar, after on Monday attending the signing of a 6.3-billion-euro ($7-billion) deal between French aerospace firm Dassault and Qatari defence officials.

The agreement includes an order for 24 Rafale fighter jets, with an option on a further 12.

On Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris and Riyadh are also discussing 20 economic projects worth "tens of billions of euros".

Hollande's presence as "guest of honour" at the summit comes just over a week before the GCC leaders travel to their traditional ally Washington.

President Barack Obama called that meeting to brainstorm on reducing regional conflicts and in an attempt to allay Gulf fears over any US rapprochement with Iran.

Gulf leaders wanted Hollande to visit ahead of the Washington summit to demonstrate that they have a faithful ally in France, "and they ask the same thing from Obama", a senior French official said.

"We are now a major partner of the region," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Most GCC countries are also part of a US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Security was high in Riyadh after IS threats to attack the kingdom.

Green-bereted Royal Guards were stationed at checkpoints on roads to the meeting venue, where a sniffer dog checked arriving vehicles.

Both Paris and Washington have sought to reassure the Gulf states about an international accord being finalised over Iran's nuclear programme.

The Gulf is worried that Shiite Iran might still be able to develop an atomic bomb under the deal that would limit its nuclear capabilities in return for a lifting of crippling international sanctions.

Tehran denies trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Before Hollande, the only other foreign leader invited to a summit of the 34-year-old GCC was Iran's then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2007.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Saudi Arabia this week before continuing to France for security talks, the White House has said.

A joint French-Saudi declaration was signed on Monday after Hollande met Saudi King Salman.

The two sides "stressed the need to achieve by June 30, a robust (nuclear) agreement that is lasting, verifiable, indisputable and binding for Iran" which must "ensure" that it would not develop an atomic bomb.

On Yemen, they stressed the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2216 calling on the rebels to withdraw from all areas they have seized since July 2014.

A source familiar with the situation said that France has provided the Saudi-led coalition with satellite imagery of Yemen.