Saudi Arabia can turn Arab League Summit promises into reality
The Arab League Summit in Jeddah has brought hope and enthusiasm in comparison with the usually unremarkable gatherings staged by the organization. The unity on display created an unmistakable momentum that could have a positive effect on some of the region’s intractable crises. All 22 states showed up on Friday, most represented by their heads of state, and almost all spoke with one voice. Some speakers still adhered to the old style of stirring oratory, but most spoke with measured and practical tones.
In a remarkable gesture, President Volodymir Zelensky of Ukraine was there. He gave a rousing speech in which he thanked Saudi Arabia for its peace and humanitarian efforts, and then strongly criticized Russia, appealing to the Arab states to help his country reverse the occupation of Ukrainian land.
In an interesting twist, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin both sent messages to the summit.
The fact that the summit was held in Saudi Arabia, in the shadow of Islam’s holiest places, was cited as a reason for hope that the decisions reached in Jeddah will be faithfully implemented. On Friday, the rotating presidency of the Arab League was transferred from Algeria to the Kingdom, meaning that the new presidency will be responsible for following up the implementation of those decisions, together with the Arab League bureaucracy. The Jeddah Declaration issued at the end of the summit listed the new presidency’s priorities.
There were about 40 items on the summit’s agenda, but chief among these were the Palestine-Israel conflict, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. In addition to the mainstay of political issues, there was plenty of discussion on climate change, renewable energy and food security, for example.
The intransigence of the current Israeli government made it easy to reach consensus on opposition to its policies. There was revulsion at the one-sided violence exacted almost daily against Palestinians, the desecration of Muslim holy sites, the uprooting of Palestinian families from their homes, the destruction of towns and communities, and the anti-Arab racist speech and actions committed by senior Israeli officials. While there was praise for Egypt’s role in arranging a ceasefire in Gaza, there was little hope expressed on the rest of that exceedingly bloody conflict.
On Sudan, there was praise for the Saudi and American efforts to reach an agreement on a truce. The summit established a new group, made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Arab League itself, to engage with the warring parties as talks continued between them in Jeddah while the summit was taking place. Egypt and the Kingdom are the two countries closest to and most affected by the conflict in Sudan, and in its new capacity as the Arab League’s rotating president, Saudi Arabia has an enhanced role there.
Inviting Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky to the Jeddah summit was a masterstroke of Saudi diplomacy.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
On Ukraine, the summit was somewhat divided. Inviting Zelensky was a masterstroke of diplomacy, but also an expression of sympathy and political support. Most Arab League members have voted at the UN consistently against Russia’s aggression, and in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and inviolability of its borders. But there remain some who were sympathetic to Russia’s position. Overall, however, the summit, led by Saudi Arabia, wanted to play a positive role in trying to end the conflict, provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and help countries affected by food shortages caused by the conflict.
Inviting Bashar Assad was the most controversial of all decisions regarding the summit. The invitation was preceded by many high-level meetings in Saudi Arabia, Cairo, Amman and Damascus. A “step-by-step” formula was reached, whereby Syria will move positively on the issues of concern to the Arab League, which led to the freezing of its membership in the organization 10 years ago. In exchange, the Arab League and its members will normalize their relationship with the country and provide assistance where needed. A committee of member states was set up to ensure the implementation of this formula.
The Saudi Arabia-Iran diplomatic breakthrough, brokered by China in March, provided the right acoustics and an opening to reach a compromise on Syria, but it was clear that the Arab states expect more from Iran. While the language used was less confrontational than in the past, in substance much remains to be done to normalize relations with Tehran. That point was made most clearly by Rashad Al-Alimi, head of the Yemen Presidential Leadership Council, who bitterly criticized Iran’s support for the Houthis, who have rejected all peace overtures.
During the days before the summit, back-to-back meetings of ministers and other senior officials hammered out agreements and compromises on those issues. After those documents have been endorsed by the summit, it is up to the Arab League’s follow-up mechanisms to ensure their implementation. As the Arab League’s rotating presidency, Saudi Arabia can play an important role in that process by putting pressure on both the league’s bureaucracy and member states to live up to the promises made in Jeddah.
The Arab League is one of the oldest intergovernmental organizations, but has been frequently criticized for not matching its lofty promises with actual deeds. Some of that criticism is fair and has a lot to do with its corporate culture and the circumstances under which it was born eight decades ago. Established in March 1945, it predates the UN, EU, and most other regional and international organizations operating today. Its longevity is remarkable, notwithstanding the many criticisms directed at its performance over the years. It was born just months before the end of the Second World War. As the war was drawing to a close, its founding states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, wanted to speak with one voice in the post-war period.
The league’s preoccupation at the start was decolonization. In 1945, most of its current members were still under foreign rule. The organization was united and quite effective in ending colonial rule in the Arab world, with the notable exception of Palestine. It has also been useful in promoting Arabic language and culture.
However, the Arab League has suffered daunting setbacks over the years. The original rule of unanimity in its charter limited its movement. Before the charter was amended in 1990 to allow for majority-based decisions, any state or a small group of states could exercise a virtual veto over the group’s decisions. The organization’s effectiveness is still influenced by the degree of consensus it can achieve among members on key issues.
Judging by many comments by both delegates to the summit and outside observers, most are counting on Saudi Arabia’s presidency over the next months to achieve the consensus needed to translate the promises made in Jeddah into action.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.