Gulf federation works to end power struggle in Sharjah

Political leaders of the seven-state United Arab Emirates on the edge of the Persian Gulf continue to work for a negotiated settlement to the ongoing power struggle between two brothers of Sharjah's ruling family. As of last night, Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Muhammad al-Qassimi, who attempted a bloodless coup against his brother last week, was still holding out in a fortified government building in the state of Sharjah with a list of demands.

Diplomatic and business sources in the Gulf say the attempted coup underscores the fragility of the Gulf states at a time of rising tension in the region.

A source reached in Sharjah by telephone yesterday said that armed members of Sharjah's national guard loyal to Sheikh Abdel Aziz were positioned at points ``here and there'' around the city. The source said artillery has been set up near government buildings. But he noted that the mood in Sharjah is calm and the border with neighoring Dubai is open. ``It is peaceful, there is no problem [for local residents],'' he added.

Despite statements Saturday night by the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that the dispute had been settled by compromise, Sheikh Abdel Aziz refused to attend an arranged meeting on Sunday that would have finalized the compromise plan. Instead he appears to have dug in his heels, surrounded himself with loyal guardsmen, and issued new demands calling for power sharing with the ruler and establishment of an executive council and a parliament. He is asking for control of Sharjah's oil and financial departments.

In the meantime, Sharjah's ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qassimi - who was vacationing in Britain at the time of the attempted coup - appears to have won a major victory in gaining the backing of the UAE's Supreme Council. The Council is comprised of sheikhs from the seven states that make up the UAE federation, formed in 1971.

Sharjah, with a population of 220,000, is located close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the southern Persian Gulf. The state has only modest oil reserves, and large-scale development efforts launched in the late 1970s have left the tiny sheikhdom with significant financial debt.

It is unclear what prompted Sheikh Abdel Aziz's attempted coup. He has accused his brother of mismanaging Sharjah's economy. That includes, according to some observers, widespread disagreement in Sharjah over Sheikh Sultan's decision several years ago to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. The move sparked an exodus of workers, who moved to neighboring Dubai where they could drink. Sharjah's landlords were left with empty apartments and local hotels lost business. The area had already been hard hit by falling oil prices.

In regional terms, the Sharjah power struggle is a major embarrassment for the Gulf states, which recently had been working to show a united front in the face of increased Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping. Gulf leaders have been debating how best to contain the current spillover of the Iran-Iraq war into international shipping lanes.

The Sharjah matter is also seen as a test of the effectiveness and strength of the fledgling federal government in the UAE, which has sought since 1971 to draw the reluctant smaller sheikhdoms into greater cooperation on federal issues.

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