Arab Summit, Somber and Curt, Reflects State of Arab Region

The 23rd Arab Summit was held March 29 in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Mustafa Abduljalil, chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, handed over to Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, the chairmanship of the conference.

Ironically, the previous summit in 2010 (the 2011 summit was not held due to upheavals in the region) was held in Muammar Qaddadfi’s hometown of Sirte, under very different circumstances. If it has not been for the Arab Spring, Mr. Abduljalil would have in all probability remained an unheard-of Libyan minister of justice.

Unlike the Sirte summit, which was marred by plenty of sarcasm and histrionics for which Qaddafi was known, the Baghdad summit was rather somber and curt. Most likely due to security reasons, it was shorter and held in Saddam Hussein’s Fao Palace instead of the more sumptuous Republican Palace in the center of the city.

In addition, fewer than half the leaders of the Arab world showed up this time. The Arab Spring, as well as strained relations between Iraq and some Gulf Arab countries, were the reasons behind these absences. Consequently, some have argued that the remedies for the challenges facing the Arab world were greater than what the summit attendees could offer.

“The problem in holding the summit in Baghdad is not purely security, as some believe,” Prince Saud Al-Feisal, foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, said candidly about the reasons for sending a low-level Saudi delegation to the Baghdad summit. He went on to argue that “the right circumstances must prevail in order to find solutions to the principal issues facing the Arab world… some in the Iraqi leadership, however, take positions that are contrary to Arab and Gulf positions in the Syrian case, as well as in the case of Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of the Gulf countries.”

The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim Althani, was no less critical of the Iraqi leadership. He attributed his absence to discontent over “the growing sectarianism in Iraqi politics and the deep disenfranchisement among the Iraqi Sunni minority.” But it is thought that the Maliki government’s support of the Assad regime is the real reason behind the prime minister’s absence.

To secure Bahraini (and, frankly, Gulf) attendance, regardless of how low the ranking of the delegations, Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq agreed not to put the Bahraini upraising on the agenda, nor refer to it in the summit’s declaration; he was eager for wider Arab attendance to balance the creeping influence of Iraq’s big neighbors, Iran and Turkey, in its internal affairs.

For the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, the “opening of the summit in Baghdad will render talks about the isolation of Iraq irrelevant: from now on, Baghdad will play a central role in Arab politics and contribute to the revitalization of the Arab League.” Interestingly, the Arab Spring revitalized a dormant league more than any member could have dreamed of. It referred Libya to the Security Council and is pushing the Assad regime to respect Syria’s international human rights obligations.

Likewise, the Arab Spring cast its shadow on the deliberations of the conference. The leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were swept away by the march of Arab history. Regimes that remained relatively immune from the contagion of the Arab Spring look with great apprehension at development in the affected countries, lest they become themselves candidates for the “plague.” That fact alone was compelling enough to redirect the attention of Arab leaders to new and perplexing realties.

Hence, the plight of the Palestinian people was not, as in all prior summit conferences, the focus of attention of Arab leaders. This time around, it was the situation in Syria, where the unprecedented brutal tactics of the regime to suppress people’s desire for freedom and democracy merited special attention.

In spite of the urgency of the issue, the summit position on Syria was less than adequate. The summit called on the Syrian government to comply with the six-point peace plan presented by Kofi Anan, the UN-Arab League joint envoy. President Bashar Al-Assad has signaled readiness to abide by Anan’s proposal, but war remains the daily reality for the Syrian people. In a show of audacity, however, the summit’s declaration “condemned the Syrian regime for committing humanitarian crime against its own people.”

However, disagreement over handling of the crisis in Syria are also an indication that, despite the unusually high-profile role played by the Arab League for much of 2011, it remains unable to overcome the divisiveness that has characterized it for much of its history.

Fragmentation in Arab ranks over the plight of the Syrian people became more pronounced after the summit, and will most likely undermine its future iterations. In Baghdad, Prime Minster Maliki expressed vehement opposition to arming the Syrian opposition on the pretext that “it will lead to regional and global proxy wars in the Syrian arena.”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent low-level representations to the summit, which was probably the reason for the attenuated outcome. They concluded that the Maliki regime, at the urging of Tehran, is providing the Assad regime with economic and political support in what seems to be a sectarian alliance.

It is for that that reason that the United Nations remains the real arena where the defiant Assad regime will be held accountable for brutalities against its own people. Encouraged by the positions of important allies, the Damascus regime rejected a priori any initiative that came out of the summit, and said it will deal with Arab countries on a bilateral basis.

The Syrian opposition, similarly, expressed “disappointment” at the failure of the summit to take concrete actions to alleviate the pains of the Syrian people and end the bombardments of its cities. A member of the Syrian National Council stated that the “Council and, indeed, the opposition in general, were expecting concrete actions from the summit; because what is taking place on the ground dictated urgent and actionable decisions.”

This year’s Arab Summit has, for all practical purposes abrogated the Arab foreign ministers’ plan, which called on the Syrian president to transfer power to the vice president.

In the meantime, the fact that the summit was held at all is in itself a singular achievement. Few expected it to be held, and if it did, some sarcastically predicted that it will not be more than an orientation conference for the many new leaders.

Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute