Another summit failure exemplifies an Arab world in crisis

Regional states, which unite readily whenever Israel is the issue, can seldom do so regarding their own internal affairs.

Arab Summit 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Arab Summit 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
Most 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.
Amr Mussa, 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.
Despite 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.
In 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 it.
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 states.
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 independent.
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 Bank.
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, Israel.
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 doubt.
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.