‘The move will transform the Gulf into a huge market,’ said Abdulrahmam bin Hamad al-Attiya, the GCC secretary general. ‘It will enable us to take advantage of the economies of scale and negotiate better deals with trading powers.’ At present, the annual trade between the six member GCC states is estimated to be worth $16,000 million.

The agreement is crucial in several other aspects: the establishment of uniform standards and specifications for manufactured goods; a single quarantine system; the setting up of a regional monetary union by 2005 and the elimination of a single GCC currency by 2010; and a major stumbling block in signing free trade agreements with the European Union (EU).

The EU is the GCC’s main trading partner, but attempts to reach an accord have proved elusive primarily due to the disparity in import tariffs in the Gulf and a long-running dispute over the 6 per cent import duty imposed by the EU on primary aluminium.

On the political front, Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani, stressed the need for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. ‘There is a need to settle the issue within the framework of the UN Security Council resolution 1441. We welcome Iraq’s co-operation with the inspecting teams, but we request the international mission to perform their task objectively and impartially,’ read the final communique of the two-day summit issued on 22 December.

Other issues discussed at the 23rd meeting of the GCC included:

The launch of a feasibility study on a proposed oil pipeline to connect all GCC member states. The new crude export pipeline would originate in Doha and terminate at a location near Muscat, on the Arabian Sea

The opening of a GCC representative office in Washington for a closer follow-up of the organisation’s activities in the US

The evolution of a new Arab strategy to handle national security and related issues. ‘As Arab leaders we need to review our present conditions and arrive at a new strategy to ensure a minimum level of solidarity and help in adopting a unified stance to face the challenges that confront us,’ Sheikh Hamed said. ‘The situation in Palestine is tragic and unfortunately the Arab world stands helpless, while the Israeli occupation forces continue with their aggression.’

The Doha summit was also marked by a failure amongst member states to reconcile the rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over an interview aired in October by the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

The rift between Doha and Riyadh is likely to slow down progress on the proposed Qatar-Kuwait natural gas pipeline. The signing of a maritime agreement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is essential before construction can start on the 500-kilometre-long trunk line that will transport Qatari gas from Ras Laffan to Al-Zour.