At last, an Arab summit with some substance
Two years ago, Morocco decided not to host the supposedly annual summit — the first since 2013 — little more than a month before it was due to take place, as a wake-up call to fellow Arab League members. A statement by the Moroccan foreign ministry noted the absence of “concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states” and bluntly denounced the summit as “just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity.”
The summit was eventually held in Mauritania, but it corresponded to the low expectations surrounding it; only seven out of 22 heads of state made an appearance, its duration was cut short to one day, and little of substance came of out of it.
This weekend’s 29th Arab League Summit in Dhahran/Dammam, on Saudi Arabia’s east coast, promises to be a little more substantive. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, and the Arab League’s Secretary General, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, confirmed that the issue of Palestine, which at least rhetorically appeals to the members’ common sense of Arabism, is guaranteed to be one of those at the top the agenda of the summit.
During last year’s Arab League Summit in Jordan, Arab states had revived the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which calls for full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, in exchange for a normalization of ties. Yet events since then, above all the decision by the current US administration to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to recognize the latter as Israel’s capital, have shattered any hopes for a breakthrough. By mid-May, the US is expected to take the first concrete steps of the planned move.
The organization’s members are poised to back the call from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres — who will attend the summit — for an independent investigation into the recent killing by Israeli forces of at least 18 unarmed Palestinian protesters at the Gaze border fence. But a common Arab stance on the peace process to respond to the new reality on the group could arise from the summit.
A chronic inability to adopt consensual positions and take meaningful decisions on critical regional security matters has become a defining feature of the Arab League. While this limitation may be largely a biproduct of the wider regional dysfunctionality, the organization and its members have often gone a long way to contribute to its own poor reputation.
Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs and Iranian involvement in various conflicts and crises across the Arab world will also feature prominently in the discussions. The Saudi hosts, backed by close allies such as the UAE and Bahrain, will seek greater unity between members on this matter. Syria, a key ally of Iran, has had its membership suspended and is not attending the summit, while the current Iraqi government is far more neutral than the previous, staunchly pro-Iranian government of Nouri Al-Maliki. Yet other Arab governments will do their upmost to refrain from criticizing or opposing Iran, such as Lebanon’s, where Hezbollah is currently the dominant force, and Qatar’s, more dependent on its ties to Tehran following the dispute with its neighbors in the Arabian Gulf.
Potential initiatives looking to adopt a tougher stance on the Iranian strategy of cultivating Shiite militias loyal to Tehran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen will be part of the discussions. Here, the focus should be on drawing a distinction between Arab League members’ basic ties to Iran, for example on trade, and the need to force Tehran’s hand on the attempts to undermine the sovereignty of Arab states or explore their weaknesses.
At the very least, a strong statement condemning the regular ballistic missile launches by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi militias, aimed at Saudi cities, as well as Iran’s crucial support for the murderous Assad regime, should be released at the end of the summit.
Syria will occupy the heads of state present at the summit. Tensions between various influential players have been growing and there are widespread fears it could spiral out of control and into a regional conflict. A statement of support for the punitive airstrikes by Western powers in response to the Syrian regime’s latest chemical weapons atrocity should also be released.
A meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab Quartet (Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) was held in Riyadh on Thursday, on the sidelines of the preparatory meetings for the summit. The Quartet reaffirmed its position about the need for Qatar to meet its 13 demands, and recalled the Six Principles defined in the Cairo meeting and the Manama Declaration as the foundations for a normalization of relations with Qatar.
However, as Adel Al-Jubeir explained after the meeting, any potential solution to the Gulf diplomatic crisis will be addressed by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
- Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.