DOHA, Dec. 7 -- The annual summit meeting of leaders of six Gulf Arab states began Saturday in the Qatari capital, but was overshadowed by Bahrain's boycott of the event because of its disputes with the host nation. Instead, a meeting designed as a showcase for regional unity has, as in previous years, demonstrated how they have failed to overcome differences over border disputes. The GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In his opening address to the summit, Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani refrained from any bitterness, expressing only regret at Bahrain's absence. 'I would like to express our deep regret that the sisterly State of Bahrain has apologized that it would not be taking part in this summit meeting, and hence my dear brother Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa could not come,' he said. 'We hope that our future sessions will be complete with the valuable participation of His Highness in our deliberations,' he added. Bahrain is boycotting the summit because Qatar has taken its claims to the Bahraini-administered Hawar Islands, Jerada Reefs and Shoals of Daibel to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, instead of leaving the matter to be resolved with GCC mediation. Bahrain said it feared Qatar, as when it hosted the GCC summit in 1990, would use the event to press its claims. Qatar had attempted to satisfy Bahraini fears, by promising not to raise the subject during the summit, and it had also toned down its rhetoric over the issue in recent months leading to the summit.
But efforts by Qatar, current GCC chairman Oman and GCC 'big brother' Saudi Arabia to dissuade Bahrain against the boycott crashed when Bahrain announced Monday it had arrested two Qatari citizens on charges of spying for Qatar. Bahrain said Salwa Jassim Mohammed Fakhri, 33, and Fahd Hamad Abdullah al-Baqir, 28, had confessed to spying for Qatar before an investigating Bahraini judge. Qatar dismissed the allegations as an attempt to sabotage the GCC summit. Bahrain issued a statement just before the opening of the summit, wishing success to the participants and thanking 'the brotherly countries who attempted to persuade Bahrain to attend'. It reiterated its reasons for boycotting, expressing regret for the 'unfriendly and unbrotherly stance of Qatar towards Bahrain, which has included threatening Bahrain's national security and stability'. It recounted Qatar's 'aggression on the Shoals of Daibel in 1986 and its exploitation of the 1990 summit to press its territorial claims'. It also recalled how Qatar had earlier in the year broadcast interviews with Bahraini opposition leaders on state television and accused it of sending spies to work against Bahrain. The Qatari emir's address went on to focus on steps to mould the GCC into a viable political, military and economic alliance. 'We convene this time under regional and international circumstances and developments that make it imperative upon us to double our efforts in the political, economic, social, scientific, cultural and other fields to achieve integration among our countries...to attain the sublime goals for which (the GCC) was established,' he told the opening session. Sheikh Hamad's emphasis was on the need for integrating the GCC's protectionist economies. 'This entails the necessity of removing all existing restrictions and reconsideration of the protectionist policies followed by some countries to subsidize their national economy,' he said. His call for liberalization followed a meeting Saturday of GCC economy ministers, which underlined their inability to agree on removing barriers to intra-Gulf trade, and to agree on a unified tariff system for other exports. Turning his attention to regional politics, Sheikh Hamad called for the implementation of the Middle East peace accords. 'Our countries see the necessity of commitment to agreements reached in the framework of the peace process, and the necessity of achieving progress on all tracks, especially the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, to arrive at the final settlement in such ways as to ensure balanced and equi-potent security for all countries of the region,' he said. Qatar and Oman are the only two GCC countries to have any formal relations with Israel. Both established economic ties in 1995.