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Abdullah stays away from Gulf summit

December 20, 2004

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MANAMA, Dec 19: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz opted on Sunday to stay away from the annual Gulf summit as his oil-rich kingdom found itself outnumbered by smaller partners bent on forging free trade deals with the United States.

"Crown Prince Abdullah will not participate in the summit (opening in Manama on Monday). The Saudi delegation will be headed by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal," a Gulf official told AFP.

He did not give the reason, but the boycott comes amid objections by Riyadh to a free trade accord signed in September between Bahrain and the United States. Other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which apart from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia groups Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, plan to sign similar deals.

Bahraini Information Minister Nabil al-Hamr told reporters earlier Sunday that Riyadh, which had sharply criticized the US-Bahrain free trade accord, was now only "voicing reservations" about the deal.

Mr Hamr said four other GCC members were involved in negotiations with the United States to conclude free trade agreements, leaving Saudi Arabia as the only member of the alliance not engaged in such talks.

Efforts are under way to "convince Saudi Arabia that those accords, far from being detrimental, serve the interests of the Gulf states," he said. Saudi Arabia had accused its smaller Gulf neighbours of weakening Gulf solidarity by forging separate economic and security agreements with foreign powers.

Riyadh, once the main US ally in the region, saw its ties with Washington strained after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States in which 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi.

The separate economic deals being struck by its GCC partners come after last year's relocation by the US Air Force of its Gulf headquarters from Saudi Arabia to the tiny emirate of Qatar, a move which dented Riyadh's clout in the region.

Though Bahrain has traditionally enjoyed close ties with Saudi Arabia, it went ahead with the free trade deal despite Riyadh's objections, which may have been behind the suspension in July of a donation of 50,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil to Manama. -AFP