By Safa Haeri

PARIS-TEHRAN-DUBAI 7TH June (IPS) - For the second time in as many days, newspapers in the Persian Gulf Sheikhdom of United Arab Emirates (UAE) criticised big brother Saudi Arabia and some other allies in the (Persian) Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) for their rapprochement with neighbouring Iran, saying such a move encourages Tehran's hegemony and occupation of three islands the UAE claims sovereignty.

The almost unprecedented row between the UAE and Saudi Arabia took a new turn after UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Rashed Abdollah al-Nu'aimi criticised some of the region's Arab countries he did not named for courting Iran even after Tehran hardened its stance on the islands, Abu Musa and Greater and smaller Tumbs located strategically in the entrance of the Persian Gulf, "recovered" by Iran from England in the seventies after London evacuated the region from its forces.

The UAE claims the islands belong to Sharja, one of the UAE's Sheikhdoms and were occupied by the Iran. Tehran says they always belonged to it, that they are situated within its territorial waters and are integral part of Iranian territory.

After the British withdrawal from the area, Iran offered special and privileged rights to the Arab residents of Abu Musa, turned quickly into a sophisticated advanced military base. The two other islands are uninhabited.

In an interview with the Qatar-based al-Jazeera Television on Saturday, Mr. Al Nu'aimi said Iran exploited the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries to order the UAE to forget about the islands.

He was publicly reacting to earlier statements made by the Saudi Crown Prince Amir Abdollah defending Iran's right to arm itself for self-defence and not harming security of its neighbours.

Iran had immediately welcomed the remarks.

What seems to have sparked the UAE's public outrage was Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's landmark visit to Saudi Arabia last month, where he was greeted warmly by King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdollah, who received him personally at the Jeddah airport.

Mr. Nu'aimi said Khatami's visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar "have harmed" the UAE's position concerning its dispute with Tehran over the islands.

To mark its displeasure with the visit, the UAE refused to attend a GCC Summit in Jeddah before the arrival of Mr. Khatami, provoking Saudi's anger.

The Foreign Minister warned that the Emirates would rethink its obligations to the GCC if other members continued to ignore the dispute over the islands.

Lashing back at Mr. Nu'aimi's unusual observations, Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdolaziz described the UAE's attitude as "childish" and expressed "astonishment" at the way some look the rapprochement between the Kingdom and any Islamic country as being at others expense.

"This is not true and incorrect in any way," he said, adding: "We do not want to start media or enter into verbal or childish dispute with anyone. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its leadership and people are above these matters. Saudi Arabia cannot reduce itself to this level. But what I want to say is that everybody should assess their words before uttering unreasonable statements", the Saudi official news agency quoted the Defence Minister and Commander of the Kingdom's Aviation as observing.

He also observed that almost half of the UAE's commercial, economic and professional ties were with Iran. "Saudi Arabia will never deviate from its firm policies towards the Arab nation and GCC states, particularly the fraternal UAE people," he assured.

"In any case, the ignorant is his own enemy," he observed sarcastically.

Political analysts and experts said such verbal exchanges are rare between members of the oil-rich Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), an alliance which includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar as well as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Iran's relations with most the GCC's members sharply degraded after the victory of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and particularly during the eight years wars with Iraq, but improved dramatically after the landslide triumph of the ayatollah Mohammad Khatami in the may 1997 presidential elections.

On Sunday a senior UAE official told Reuters the oil-rich state had decided the time was right to be more outspoken. "After a long meeting yesterday, (the UAE leadership) all agreed this issue had gone on long enough," the official said, quoted by Reuters.

He said his country was "very much displeased" with some fellow GCC members for failing to press Tehran on the islands issue. The situation was making the UAE reconsider its role in the regional alliance, he told Reuters.

"What's the use of the GCC if all the members have their own policy? How can we be a member and fulfil all our obligations if the other members don't fulfil theirs?" he said.

To highlight UAE's annoyance at what it considers as a "process of isolation the position of the some of the GCC's members", the Arabic daily "Al Ettehad" came out Monday with one full column blank while the English language daily "Gulf News" noted that the Iran-Saudi rapprochement was harming the Emirate's position, expressing the Sheikhdom's official line.

Reacting to the UAE's disapproval of newly warm relations between Tehran and Riyadh and in an apparent gesture aimed at calming down the Emirates worries, Iran's Foreign Minister Mr. Kamal Kharrazi said Monday Tehran was ready for expanding ties with all Arab and Muslim nations, including the UAE.

Speaking with the pro-Government English language daily Iran News, Mr. Kharrazi said as a regional power, Iran wanted to have good, positive, friendly relations with all its neighbours and has taken important steps in creating a positive atmosphere in the area.

However, Mr. Kharrazi did not mentioned the Iran-UAE dispute over the islands, observers noted. ENDS IRAN-UAE-SAUDI 769920