Arab League must write new chapter in pan-Arab cooperation
Those in Israel and the United States who had hoped that the Arab League summit in Dhahran would expose fractures in Arab leaders’ stance on the Palestinian cause were left sorely disappointed. In their opening speeches, King Abdullah of Jordan and host King Salman both underlined the centrality of the Palestinian issue for all Arabs and Muslims, while denouncing the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Coming from two close US allies, this commitment to the fundamental principles governing a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was reflected in the summit’s final communique.
This was perhaps the most important message that Arab leaders wanted to send to the rest of the world: That unilateral actions — even if they were adopted by a superpower such as the US — aimed at changing the legal status of the Occupied Territories would not stand. The parameters for a just and lasting solution remain the same: UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, whose implementation embraces the two-state solution, allowing for the creation of the Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967, lines with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Symbolically and equally significantly, the Dhahran summit was appropriately named the “Jerusalem Summit.”
This unanimous Arab position debunked allegations that some Arab states were open to other proposals that would derail the two-state solution and cede Arab sovereignty on East Jerusalem. This is a strong message to the Trump administration, which is reportedly putting the final touches to a new initiative that abandons in substance and spirit previous commitments to the two-state solution and forces a one-sided settlement to the conflict.
Aside from the unified position on Palestine, Arab leaders were in agreement on rejecting foreign intervention in their affairs. Iran’s meddling in Yemen and its support of the Houthi rebellion were denounced by the leaders. King Salman reiterated that a political solution to the Yemeni crisis must be based on the GCC initiative and the outcome of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference. The Arab states also condemned the launching of ballistic missiles on Saudi cities by the Houthis, with Iranian assistance.
Foreign intervention in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq underscores a dysfunctional Arab League that has been unable to confront regional flashpoints.
But while the leaders approved a national security document that outlined a counter-terrorism strategy — an important benchmark for common Arab action — there were areas of difference. Syria, which was targeted by US, British and French missiles the day before the summit in retaliation for use of chemical weapons by the regime in Douma, revealed fault lines in Arab positions. While the trilateral attack was not on the summit’s agenda, Arab leaders stressed the need for a political resolution to the seven-year civil war along the lines of the Geneva process and relevant UN resolutions.
Arab states differed in their reaction to the coalition attack on Syria, with some supporting it and others warning of its repercussions. While condemning the Turkish military presence in Syria and Iraq, the summit underlined the commitment to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Other files where Arab leaders were in agreement included the need to find a peaceful solution in Libya, fighting terrorism, supporting UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and Arab residents of Jerusalem, reforming the Arab League, and implementing the recommendations of the Arab Economic and Social Council. Many of these resolutions were carried over from previous summits, while some are still waiting for implementation.
It is hoped that some much-needed momentum will be created now that Saudi Arabia is heading the summit. Riyadh has the political and economic weight needed to push for implementation of most of the resolutions.
The Arab world finds itself facing unprecedented political, economic and social challenges. The entire system of pan-Arab cooperation and coordination is in a state of disrepair. This is one reason why regional players such as Iran and Turkey are moving in to fill the void. Foreign intervention in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq underscores a dysfunctional Arab League that has been unable to confront regional flashpoints.
While attention was given to the crises in Palestine, Yemen, Syria and Libya, little mention was made of the endemic problems of youth unemployment, poverty, failing infrastructure and corruption that have plagued entire countries. The future of this crucial part of the world depends on empowering its youth and unleashing their potential. While political challenges have consumed leaders for decades, it was at the expense of generations of Arabs. Thus it is no secret that the gap between leaders and citizens has widened and trust in pan-Arab institutions has waned.
It is hoped that the Dhahran summit will set new parameters and goals and that Saudi Arabia, which is going through a historic phase of social and economic transformation, can make the necessary push to open a new chapter in pan-Arab cooperation, where slogans can become a reality.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.