Monthly summits needed to solve Arab world’s problems

Monthly summits needed to solve Arab world’s problems

The 29th Arab League summit that took place in the Saudi city of Dhahran on Sunday brought together 16 heads of state and six other Arab officials. They met face-to-face with the hope that they could solve some of the region’s protracted problems. As important as the summit was, it was way too short, with most of it dedicated to public speeches. But this annual meeting of the heads of Arab states is of crucial importance. 

In past years, such a meeting would have been postponed because of the differences that exist between the participating countries. At one of the earliest Arab League summits — in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1964 — a decision was taken that the leaders should meet once a year no matter the circumstances. But this was not honored. No meeting took place between the 1982 summit in the Moroccan city of Fes and the 1985 Casablanca summit or in the period between the 1990 Baghdad meeting and 1996 in Cairo. Again no summit occurred between 1996 and the 2000 summit, also in Cairo.

However, since the 2001 summit in Amman, the Arab leaders have once again started meeting annually.

In Dhahran, Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy representative of the European Union, told the Arab heads of state there are “too many conflicts in our common region.” Mogherini continued: “We Europeans and Arabs have a duty and an interest to seek common solutions. I am glad, for instance, that the Arab League and the European Union meet frequently to discuss the situation in Libya, and coordinate our work to stabilize and unite the country.”

While the EU official spoke about regular meetings on the issue of Libya, it is noteworthy that the leaders of Europe themselves have a robust summit policy, in which they meet on a regular basis to solve their problems. Since 1975, for example, EU leaders have met three times a year and, between 1996 and 2007, they met at least four times a year. The frequency of these meetings went up between 2008 and 2016 to seven a year, and in 2017 nine European summits took place. Already this year the heads of state in Europe have met five times

Not only do European leaders meet much more frequently but their summits are largely kept out of the public eye, except for short statements before and after. Most of the sessions after the five-minute photo opportunity are held behind closed doors, where the real hard work, negotiations and problem-solving takes place.

Public speeches by leaders in support of Arab causes such as the territorial unity of Syria and Libya are significant and important, but Arab people want more.

Daoud Kuttab

What would happen if Arab heads of state met five or six times a year? What would be the result of these meetings if the major part was held in private, where the leaders could thrash out their problems and find solutions to serve their own people?

The Arab League is much more homogeneous than Europe. Arabs speak the same language and have a similar culture and background and, unlike Europe, Arabs don’t have the history of two bloody world wars that brought death and destruction to millions.

In the art of politics, problem-solving requires agreement on both form and content. Political scientists say that, if there is no agreement on content, it is doubly important to insist on adhering to the correct format. A face-to-face summit is a format that has the potential for reaching some common ground. Leaders need to understand that there is no need to try and go for a zero-sum game where one side wins and the other loses. Common ground agreements are based on practical compromises that avert clashes and gradually move a problem toward resolution.

Public speeches by leaders in support of Arab causes such as the territorial unity of Syria and Libya are significant and important, but Arab people want more.

What is needed is a serious effort to find a process that can turn lofty goals into policy that is followed through on a daily basis. Paying attention to issues dealing with unemployment in the Arab world and the continued need to stress the importance of youth and women, as well as the need to translate stated political targets into timely results should be key priorities at Arab summits. The record of fulfilling promises, such as financial support to the steadfast Palestinians in Jerusalem, also needs to be improved and followed up on a regular basis. Inter-Arab problems that are the usual basis for delaying meetings should not be allowed to stop leaders from getting together and thrashing out their problems in an atmosphere of honesty and compromise for the common good.

This means that one Arab summit per year is not enough. We need to have one summit a month for the next year or so in order to reach the stage where our leaders work selflessly together to find real solutions to the growing number of inter-Arab conflicts that have turned our region into a war theater for foreign armies to battle out their own differences at the expense of Arab blood and property.
Daoud Kuttab, a Jerusalemite, is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His latest book Sesame Street, Palestine was published by BearManor Media.  He is a columnist with Al-Monitor and a reporter with Arab News. Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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