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Saudi prince to skip GCC summit

Riyadh objects to a free trade accord signed in September between Bahrain and the US

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz has opted to stay away from the annual GCC summit in Bahrain amid growing intra-Gulf differences on free trade, said officials.

The announcement comes amid objections by Riyadh to a free trade accord signed in September between Bahrain and the US.

Saudi Arabia has criticised the pact, saying such bilateral agreements would hamper efforts to unify the economies of GCC states. Bahrain insists the agreement will not hurt GCC economies.

Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz will head the kingdom's delegation to the summit opening today, according to a statement issued by the royal court in Riyadh.

Other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), which apart from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia groups Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, plan to sign similar deals.

Bahraini Information Minister Nabeel Al Hamer said earlier that Riyadh was now only 'voicing reservations' about the deal.

Hamer said four other GCC members were involved in negotiations with the US 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,' Hamer said.

Saudi Arabia had accused its smaller Gulf neighbours of weakening Gulf solidarity by forging separate economic and security agreements with foreign powers.

Saudi Arabia is the only GCC state that is still not a member of the World Trade Organisation.

Officials had said on Saturday that the GCC foreign ministers would discuss the Saudi-Bahraini differences ahead of the two-day summit.

But Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, who chaired a meeting of the chief diplomats yesterday, did not mention the issue after the single round of talks, saying merely that the officials had held 'constructive' discussions.

Economic issues will vie for the attention of GCC leaders at their annual year-end summit with topics such as the threat from extremists, the situation in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The GCC states launched a customs union in January 2003 and plan to establish a monetary union next year, a common market in 2007 and a single currency by the start of 2010.

Shaikh Mohammed said the massive presence of expatriate labour in the GCC states would also be on the summit agenda.

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