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Mon 19 Dec 2011 11:32 AM

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Iran, Syria on the agenda as Gulf leaders meet

Riyadh meeting is first since Arab Spring uprisings transformed the Middle East

Iran, Syria on the agenda as Gulf leaders meet
Foreign and finance ministers from the six Gulf nations

Gulf Arab leaders holding a summit on Monday in Saudi Arabia are hoping that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will finally sign an Arab League peace deal aimed at ending his crackdown on protests and averting a civil war.

The crisis in Syria and a dispute with Iran will likely be high on the agenda of their meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh, their first summit since Arab uprisings transformed the Middle East this year.

After six weeks of Syrian stalling, Qatar said it had information Assad would sign the plan, which calls for withdrawing the army from towns that have turned against him, freeing thousands of political prisoners, starting dialogue with the opposition and letting monitors into the country.

"We have information that indicates that he will sign the initiative. If this is true or not true we'll see," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Riyadh, in remarks carried by al-Arabiya Television.

"If they don't sign we will take the matter to the Security Council to adopt all the resolutions which have been taken by the Arab League," Sheikh Hamad told reporters.

Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi bin Abdullah said: "We are optimistic that Syria will join the Arab League in signing the protocol, which is ready now, within 24 hours."

"That is what we hope for. If not, the Arab League foreign ministers will meet on Wednesday to consider measures that might be taken in the future," he said in Riyadh on Sunday afternoon.

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and announced sanctions over Assad's refusal so far to sign up to its peace plan.

Arab ministers are set to meet later this week and could decide to submit their plan to the U.N. Security Council, making it a potential basis for wider international action.

The two-day Gulf meeting comes a week after Iran's Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi held talks in Riyadh to try to calm rising tensions across the Gulf.

Bahrain, the Gulf nation worst hit by protests this year, has accused Iran of backing a revolt among its Shi'ite Muslim majority that called for democratic change, while Saudi Arabia has accused Tehran of plotting to assassinate its ambassador in the United States.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) opposed the popular protests that ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, but they helped negotiate a power transition in Yemen and backed measures against both Syria and Libya for their violent reaction to unrest.

Of the GCC members, only Bahrain and Oman suffered major protests. Saudi Arabia, the largest GCC country by size and population, distributed $110bn in social benefits that helped it ward off protests except among its Shi'ite minority.

The turmoil that hit the Middle East in 2011 also heightened oil prices, raising revenues for most Gulf states.

The GCC agreed an aid package for both Oman and Bahrain following the spring's demonstrations but the money has not yet been paid.

"This is still being reviewed to put the mechanism in place," Omani Finance Minister Darwish al-Balushi said. "It doesn't form part of our 2012 budget at this time."

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi is also attending the summit and said on Sunday he hoped to secure development aid from the impoverished state's Gulf neighbours.