An extraordinary summit of the leaders of the Arab world was held on October 9
in the Libyan city of Syrte. It had been convened in accordance with the
decision taken at the regular yearly summit in March. And the press –
international and Israeli alike – did not have much to say about it.
press attention had been diverted to another meeting, that of the Arab League
monitoring committee. Would it endorse the position of Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas, who had stated that direct talks with Israel were
contingent on the continuing building freeze in the settlements? It did and the
council of Arab foreign ministers who met in Syrte to determine the upcoming
summit’s program followed suit. However the council gave the US a month to find
a solution enabling the pursuit of the talks.
Arab states that unite
readily whenever Israel is the issue can seldom do so regarding their own
internal affairs. The outcome of the Syrte summit is yet another powerful
reminder of the continuing failure of these states to tackle their more pressing
political and economic problems. Two vexing issues on which no consensus had
been found at the regular summit were on the agenda.
PRIOR TO THE MARCH
summit, which was also held in Syrte, the host country and chair, and Yemen,
drafted a document calling on member states to upgrade the relevant institutions
of the Arab League by amending its charter to ensure better coordination in
dealing with common issues.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in favor
and even suggested changing the name of the League of Arab States (usually
referred to as the Arab League) to the Union of Arab States.
whose term of office as head of the Arab League ends next year, gave his
wholehearted approval to a move which would give him an opportunity to seek a
new mandate in what would be a new organization. It was also Mussa who presented
the second document, which deals with setting up a suitable framework for
working with neighboring states such as Iran and Turkey. Here again was a bid to
boost his standing and that of the Arab League, which had been badly eroded by
their failure to contribute to the development of member states.
intense media interest, Arab leaders demonstrated once again how reluctant they
were to move forward. Internal strife and opposing views among summit members
led to these issues being shelved until an extraordinary summit could discuss
them in depth.
Observers had little expectations of seeing any
significant progress on such important issues at the extraordinary summit. They
had not counted on the combined efforts of Libyan President Muammar Gadaffi and
of Mussa, who brought amended drafts of their proposals and tried to pressure
participants into accepting them.
Following intense discussions in
meetings which were closed to the public, the first proposal was endorsed and
the secretariat of the Arab League was asked to prepare a definitive text which
would be presented to the next regular yearly summit scheduled to be held next
March in Iraq. (The venue is still in dispute, several states being reluctant to
have the meeting there). Regarding the second proposal, it was decided to create
a special committee headed by Gadaffi to further examine the issue.
other words, the final decision was postponed again, till the next summit. Some
progress had allegedly been made on the first proposal, which was accepted in
principle, though some states, such as Saudi Arabia, were unhappy about
A few days after the Syrte summit ended, a number of sources leaked
to the Egyptian daily Al-Masri al-Yom and to the Saudi daily published in London
A-Sharq al-Awsat details from the closed meetings.
It turned out that
seven countries led by Saudi Arabia were against changing the mandate of the
Arab League; they argued that, in its present form, it provided the organization
with all the tools it needed to promote and develop cooperation between member
The seven countries notified the secretariat of the Arab League
that they did not agree to the minutes of the meeting communicated by Mussa to
member states. Later, the official Saudi representation to the Arab League in
Cairo published the memorandum it had sent on that subject; the Saudi
information minister reiterated that there was no need to change the existing
institutions, only to strengthen them through measures decided by consensus
among Arab states.
This led to considerable agitation. In a interview
with A-Sharq al-Awsat
, Mussa tried to defuse the issue by saying that the
recommendations in his proposal included “only” having two summit meetings a
year instead of one and that in any case all member states would have their say
at the next summit.
The Arab League was created in Cairo on March 22,
1945. The UK strongly supported the move and the league included the countries
which were independent at the time – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan (the name
was changed to Jordan in 1949), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The Emirates and
North African countries joined later when they became
Changing the charter of the league is not an easy task, not
to be achieved by a sneak attack such as was carried by Libya and by Mussa. It
requires discussions in depth, and the consensus of all members, particularly
founding members. Furthermore there is nothing in the proposed changes which can
improve the disastrous political and economic situation of Arab states or bring
about a rapprochement between feuding members.
WHAT ARAB countries need
right now is determination and courage. Middle Eastern and North African Arab
countries are today the least developed part of the world after African and
Sahel countries. Yet their combined population is more than 350 million, they
have immense natural resources including natural gas and oil, minerals and vast
territories where they could develop advanced agriculture, alternative sources
of energy and modern cities. However all – with the exception of Lebanon – have
dictatorial regimes with varying degrees of corruption, and cannot therefore
advance toward democracy and respect of human rights, let alone economic
progress and education.
Tribal and ethnic conflicts combined with the
rise of radical Islam have already brought the collapse of Somalia, while Sudan,
Iraq and Yemen are perilously close to the same situation. Other states such as
Saudi Arabia are threatened and must depend on their armies to survive. Iran’s
ceaseless efforts to extend its influence and its steady progress toward the
manufacturing of nuclear weapons are a direct threat to Persian Gulf countries.
Through its proxies Hamas and Hizbullah, Iran is pushing its tentacles deep into
the Middle East, as can be seen in Lebanon, Egypt and in the West
On the political front, pragmatic and extremist Arab nations are in
a state of open confrontation. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco are
facing Syria – which is assisting Iran and supports Hizbullah while meddling in
Lebanese affairs. This has a destabilizing effect on the region. Qatar leans
toward Iran; Algeria, where the civil war is yet to be subdued, is violently
against Israel and against the West. One could go on to further expose the
fallacy of the so called “union” on all issues – except, of course,
Regarding the second proposal, setting up a suitable framework
for cooperation with neighboring countries such as Iran and Turkey, it is quite
obvious that most member states are against it. They are afraid of Iranian
subversive activities and are only too well aware that there can be no dialogue
with that country, only submission. Gadaffi will doubtless try to draft a
seemingly acceptable document for the next summit, but the result is not in
Arab countries enjoy normal relations with Turkey, though they are
uneasy with the deepening of the Islamic influence and the references to a
renewal of the caliphate; they have not forgotten that Turkey is the heir of the
Ottoman Empire which once ruled them.
Thus the concerted attempts by
Gadaffi and Mussa to change the charter of the Arab League to bring about
greater cooperation to tackle the difficult situation of the Arab states seem
divorced from reality.
Much more is needed to see a change for the better
in the Middle East. However it seems that no one wants to admit it. Arab states
are still in denial and as long as they refuse to deal with the very real issues
confronting them, things can only get worse. Summit meetings which won’t take
the bull by his horns are doomed to fail and to plunge the Arab world deeper
into the abyss.The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, Romania and
Sweden and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.