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A summit of Arab accord and partnership?

The Amman Summit this week was not historic. It was not along the lines of the Khartoum Summit in 1967, which stipulated no negotiations, peace or recognition of Israel. Nor was it like the Beirut Summit in 2002, which endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative that declared willingness to recognize Israel alongside a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. The Amman Summit did not produce anything new regarding the conflict.

It welcomed the return of Palestine as a central issue in Arab consciousness. But it did not deviate, at least in public, from the parameters that will be carried by Jordan’s King Abdallah to Washington to benefit from President Donald Trump’s openness to finding a realistic, pragmatic resolution of the conflict.

The summit of “accord and agreement” deliberately papered over Arab differences, though it could not stop the withdrawal of Egypt’s delegation from the meeting hall when Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani gave his speech.

That incident undermined the spirit of the summit, and sent an undesirable message to the Gulf countries. One Gulf official, objecting to the Egyptian behavior, said: “Qatar is not an uncovered state, it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).”

The meeting between King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi did not restore warmth to bilateral relations. But it managed to rein in the deterioration despite differences on Yemen, where Egypt is playing no role, and Syria, where Cairo’s position is contrary to the Kingdom’s and closer to that of Russia and Iran alongside the Syrian regime.

What was remarkable in the context of “accord and agreement” was King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi setting off a new, positive chapter in crucial bilateral ties, both in terms of the internal dimension in Iraq and in terms of the roles played by Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US in Iraq, in light of a growing American presence and developments favoring the Kurds.

The summit, meanwhile, sent a message to the world that the Arabs are in full agreement on fighting terrorism using all means available and in partnership with countries leading the war on terror. Iran also has adopted the war on terror as a key theme during talks between President Hassan Rouhani and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

In the Arab Summit’s statements, however, Iran was not seen as a regional partner, but was attacked because of its interference in Arab countries and “sectarian agitation” in the region. This was a departure from the final statement issued by the previous Arab Summit in Bahrain in December, which made no such accusations.

During that summit, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad was given a mandate to conduct dialogue with Iran on behalf of the Gulf countries. This transpired at the highest levels, with Kuwait’s foreign minister carrying a message of dialogue to Tehran, followed by a visit by Rouhani to Kuwait and a discussion on dialogue with Iran by Gulf foreign ministers in Riyadh this week, with a view to normalizing relations.

The Amman Summit avoided the reality of division and fragmentation in several Arab countries, and of sectarian cleansing in Syria. Heads were buried in the sand, as if all this is normal and to be expected.

Perhaps Sheikh Sabah was one of the few leaders who gave a frank diagnosis of the situation. He said the Arab Spring “upended the security and stability of our people, and disrupted growth and development” in Arab countries. He called on Arab nations to “rise above differences… so we do not give room to those who are trying to undermine our security.”

The Amman Summit avoided the reality of division and fragmentation in several Arab countries, and of sectarian cleansing in Syria. Heads were buried in the sand, as if all this is normal and to be expected.

Raghida Dergham

His efforts with Iran were in the name of the GCC countries, with the goal of establishing strategic dialogue that would lead, if successful, to breakthroughs in the conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and in countries such as Lebanon. The conclusion of the Gulf Summit six months ago to assign Kuwait’s emir to explore prospects for dialogue and normalization with Iran was more practical and positive than the rigid tone of this Arab Summit.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit was also frank. “We are closely following the Syrian crisis without having any real tools to intervene, with other active parties shaping the future of Syria, and without real Arab contribution,” he said. “One in every two refugees in the world today is Arab.”

Aboul Gheit said regional parties are using sectarianism to divide Arab nations. He stressed the need to set priorities instead of lamenting the past, and to deal with the chaos “because it affects Arabs’ humanity and very right to live.”

King Abdallah, who will chair the Arab Summit for a year, called for seizing the initiative to develop “historical solutions for deep challenges to avoid foreign interventions in our affairs,” beginning with “agreeing on our main goals and interests.”

The first priority set by him is “terrorism, which threatens Arabs and Muslims more than anyone else.” He called for “joining efforts between our countries and the world to confront this threat through a comprehensive approach.” The second priority, he said, is Israel’s expanding settlements and the need for peace based on a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue.

The third is Syria, where Arab hopes are currently pinned on the processes in Astana and Geneva to launch a political transition that will safeguard its territorial integrity. Other priorities include security and stability in Iraq, Yemen and Libya, as well as the refugee issue. The king will take theses priorities to Washington after El-Sisi’s visit to the US capital next week.

El-Sisi’s priority in Washington, in addition to highlighting partnership in the war on terror, will be bilateral ties. Egypt is pleased to see the clock being reset to the pre-Obama state of relations with the US, and El-Sisi is ready to accommodate Trump to the maximum extent because he can sense a strategic shift in bilateral relations.

Yet what El-Sisi wants from Trump is easier than what Trump wants from El-Sisi. Egypt’s president wants investment, funds, technology, strategic cooperation and the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror group, all of which are plausible goals. Trump wants Egypt to remove the Palestinian issue from the list of Arab priorities and sideline the Arab Peace Initiative, which is something El-Sisi cannot deliver.

The Yemeni issue does not interest El-Sisi, and will not be central to his talks with Trump. El-Sisi may try to influence Trump to accept Syrian President Bashar Assad in power on the basis that the spread of terrorism weakens nation-states, with the priority being preserving the Syrian state.

On Syria, Cairo’s positions are in line with Moscow’s except for the Iranian dimension. The common denominator between the three countries’ policies remains accepting Assad in power, at least for the time being. Indications from Washington suggest Trump is not wholly opposed to this, though his envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, this week said Assad and Iran were major obstacles to peace in Syria.

During the first official visit by an Iranian president to Moscow, Putin spoke of a new impetus for bilateral strategic cooperation. The joint statement covered the priority of fighting terror and the Syrian issue. The two presidents declared their agreement on the need to settle the Syrian crisis, stressing that Russia, Iran and Turkey were guaranteeing the cease-fire.

There may be some tactical differences or competition between the Russian and Iranian roles in Syria, according to some reports. But there is no proof of a strategic divergence between the two countries. Their strategic partnership remains in place.

Russia was keen to be present at the Arab Summit via its senior Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov, and via a cable sent by Putin to Arab leaders expressing Moscow’s willingness to help settle regional conflicts, consolidate the cease-fire in Syria, fight terror groups in increasing cooperation with the Arab League, and help rebuild affected areas after conflicts are resolved.

Lebanon via President Michel Aoun also addressed the summit, expressing willingness to serve as a bridge between the countries of the region. Aoun said Lebanon did not catch the flames from the fires raging around it, but has suffered nonetheless, and is hosting Syrian and Palestinian refugees equivalent to half its population.

Lebanon was not a prominent issue at the summit, but it was represented this time by a unified delegation comprising both the president and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, highlighting the desire for accord and agreement. Furthermore, the meeting between Aoun and King Salman, and Hariri’s boarding of the king’s plane back to Riyadh with him, were positive signals for Lebanon.

In his first appearance before Arab leaders as UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres focused on the fate of refugees, calling for further aid and an end to the fighting in Syria. He pledged to “work together” to end the conflicts in Yemen and Libya. He spoke of the “open wound” in the region, in reference to the state of the Palestinian people, admitting to the international community’s failure to secure ways and support for a just and lasting solution.

He said anyone who thinks the situation can be managed is wrong, because Israelis and Palestinians do not need to manage the conflict but to resolve it. Guterres called for stopping all unilateral steps that undermine the two-state solution, which specifically applies to illegal settlement activities.

What he said was in line with what many Arab leaders said. Guterres proclaimed that divisions in the Arab world opened the door to foreign interventions, destabilization, sectarian divisions and terrorism. Unity in such times is crucial, he concluded.

• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

— Originally published in Al-Hayat.