EIGHT Arab countries of the United States-led coalition gathered March 5 to discuss long-term security in the region, against a background of internal conflict in defeated Iraq. Foreign ministers from Egypt, Syria, and six Gulf states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman - met in Damascus, Syria, for their first gathering since Kuwait's occupation ended. The group was to review a security and economic pact to be signed at a future summit.
As they met, reports from southern Iraqi indicated growing civil unrest aimed at the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein. Saddam's elite Republican Guard was reported attempting to crush the rebellion.
The themes expected to emerge from the Damascus meeting include: more economic interaction in the region, so that Gulf oil wealth benefits poorer countries such as Syria and Egypt, and the need to beef up military alliances to thwart aggressors.
On March 3, in a speech before Parliament, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the end of the Gulf war had brought ``a new dawn'' to the Middle East. He called on Arabs to join a new world order based on peace, democracy, and economic cooperation.
``We don't want a division between [Arab] east and west,'' Mr. Mubarak said. ``We don't want the Arab nations to be two nations.''
In recent days, comments by senior officials in Gulf countries have suggested that they favor an ``international'' rather than an Arab security arrangement. Reports from Jiddah say that Saudi Arabia, emboldened by the US-led military defeat of Iraq, will seek to play a more active moderating role in Arab politics.
Both Egypt and Syria, which sent troops to the Gulf, are pressing for the use of Arab forces for any future defense of the Gulf region. They are also adamant that economic support from the oil-rich Gulf increase.
``Security emanates from economics,'' a senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry source says. He acknowledges the Gulf states have been historically hesitant to rely on Arab allies for defense or to commit to more permanent economic cooperation.
``They may still have their same old concepts of regional cooperation,'' the Egyptian source says. ``But they will adhere to the new thinking, because the allies which saved them from Iraq adhere to it.''
Egyptian officials are playing down the prospect of a long-term presence by Western troops.
``There are many levels of security,'' says a military source. ``There may be the use of a United Nations peacekeeping force, the deployment of Arab troops in specific border territories. There will be regional, Arab, agreements for mutual defense. And there may also be `over-the-horizon' defense arrangements.''
An ``over-the-horizon'' type of agreement is most likely to cover defense by an international, American, or British force. When asked about the possible domestic repercussions, the military source says: ``This is an internal affair. If these countries want to have bilateral agreements with other states, it is none of our concern.''