Gulf Arab leaders broadly endorsed Saudi King Abdullah's call to form a "single entity" in what appeared to be an attempt to form a more united front against a perceived threat from Iran.
In their annual meeting, Saudi King Abdullah said the security of Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbours was being targeted, in an apparent reference to Iran, and called on Gulf Arab states to "move beyond the stage of cooperation and into the stage of unity in a single entity.”
The goal of greater union is enshrined in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s 1981 founding charter, but has only been given impetus by the mass uprisings that have reshaped the power balance in the Middle East, as well as fears of a newly assertive non-Arab, Shiite Iran across the Strait of Hormuz.
Participants at the two-day GCC meeting – Monday and Tuesday – discussed the matter informally, officials said, and pledged to study it and report back by March without specifying what concrete steps might be taken.
The GCC members also demanded that Syria immediately implement an Arab League peace plan that it has signed to end a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, which dominates the GCC, said Syria must fully embrace the plan, which calls for troops to be pulled out of towns and cities, prisoners to be released, and a dialogue begun with opposition groups. "If the intentions are pure, these steps must be taken immediately," Prince Saud Al-Faisal said.
The GCC, holding its highest-level meeting since a wave of protests swept the Arab world this year, pledged closer military and security integration in a final statement read out on Saudi state television.
They agreed on "... adopting King Abdullah's suggestion of moving from cooperation to unity that would support our people overcome the challenges faced by the GCC", the statement said.
It made no specific reference to Iran, which Gulf leaders have accused of fomenting anti-government unrest in GCC member Bahrain, put down by a joint GCC intervention force.
Nonetheless, analysts said the move, like King Abdullah's comments, which drew applause from delegates on Monday, was a response to the perceived threat from Iran and the Arab revolts.
Long-standing proposals for a GCC customs union, single currency and shared military command have not been realised, although the countries did form a small joint armed force that sent troops to Bahrain in February at the request of the island state's rulers.
In a further move to bolster Arab monarchies, the Gulf states in May said Morocco and Jordan might one day join the GCC. On Tuesday they pledged $2.5 billion in development aid to each country.
"At this point, everything has to do with security. These are the two kingdoms on the outer reach of the region that the Gulf wants to back in order to preserve their power status," said an economic analyst who did not want to be identified.
Prince Saud said the Gulf states would also give aid to Yemen, Saudi Arabia's impoverished southern neighbour that has slid into near chaos over the past year, but gave no figure.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Al-Qirbi had met Gulf Arab deputy finance ministers on Sunday to seek a development package and told reporters he had "great expectations.”
Tensions have risen between the two leading Gulf powers, Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, in recent months. Saudi Arabia had long suspected Iran of expansionist ambitions after the emergence of a Shiite-led government in Iraq, and suspects it of attempting to develop a nuclear bomb.
It has also pointed to allegations by the United States that Iran backed a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington as proof of Tehran's aim to destabilise the region.
Saudi leaders believe Iran has come to dominate Iraq, with King Abdullah quoted in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as saying that the US-led invasion in 2003 had gifted Iraq to Iran "on a golden platter" and describing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as "Iranian 100 percent.”
Prince Saud on Tuesday said Iraq must "clarify its policies with other regional countries" following the departure of the last US troops from Iraq this month. Saudi Arabia does not have an embassy in Baghdad.