Arab League summit returns, with low expectations for decisive results

Divisive Abraham Accords not on agenda but Palestinian issue front and center at first meeting since COVID outbreak

Flags of Arab League member countries on display at Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel, Lebanon January 18, 2019 (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Flags of Arab League member countries on display at Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel, Lebanon January 18, 2019
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)

Arab leaders will gather in Algiers on November 1-2 for the first Arab League summit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, for a meeting that experts say will not end with any vital decision-making on a range of pressing issues.

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The Arab League is an assembly of 22 nations whose recurrent summits try to reach consensus and resolutions on regional and local crises. The first Arab League summit was held in 1964 in Cairo. Syria has been suspended from the summit since the start of its bloody civil war in 2011.

Dr. Yasmine Hasnaoui, a political science professor at a university in Kuwait, told The Media Line that the summit comes at a critical time, as both the region and the world have changed due to the pandemic, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and internal crises in Arab countries.

These internal crises, she said, include Lebanon’s social and economic turmoil, the conflict in Yemen, the Libyan civil war, and Algeria’s socioeconomic issues and its ongoing involvement in the Western Sahara conflict that led to a diplomatic break with Morocco.

Mohamed Thabet Hassanein, an Egyptian researcher in Middle Eastern affairs, told The Media Line that this Arab summit comes during “difficult” circumstances, which he said explained Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s comments that its success is needed in light of the situation in the region.

As much as the summit aims to reach a consensus among the Arab nations to come together to solve such critical issues, Hassanein said that judging by the outcome of past meetings, this one was not expected to yield real solutions for the Arab world’s current issues either. “Previous experiences of Arab summits make it difficult to expect solutions to the region’s problems, whether permanent or temporary,” he said. Hasnaoui noted that while many officials in the Arab governments hope that this summit will not be “a failure” as in the past and that Algeria has pledged that it will revolve around “Arab consensus,” “many Arab people are skeptical that this summit will meet thechallenges of the Arab countries on both the regional and international levels.” Likewise, she believes that there will be a draft outcome on paper but with very few solutions to these crises. She says this is mostly because the Arab League itself is split over broad political currents and there is a lack of consensus on several issues.

Silvia Boltuc, the managing director of SpecialEurasia, a geopolitical and business intelligence platform, told The Media Line that even though the Arab League had experienced friction between its member states in the past over issues such as normalization with Israel and the Syrian crisis, its members were working on enhancing their ties.

For this reason, she believes that the summit this year is relevant and that the current geopolitical situation has transformed its context. “In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, global balances have changed, particularly in theenergy field,” she said, adding that this was a subject that highly concerned many Arabnations.

“Southern European countries are relocating their investments in North African countries to get oil and gas imports and cover the vacuum left since Russia is no longer the leading partner,” she said. The same can be said about Gulf states, she added, saying that other European countries such as Germany have shifted their attention to the Gulf monarchies to obtain their needed gas. While this might be a positive outcome for Arab countries and their economies, Boltuc pointed out that this brings negative effects as well. One of them, she said, was the shifting relations between the United States and some regional actors because of OPEC+’s decision to cut oil production earlier this month.

Boltuc also mentioned that the food security issue was one of the region’s main problems today.

“One hundred and forty-one million people in the Arab world are currently exposed to food insecurity, so it is imperative to address this problem,” she said. According to her, the food crisis is further aggravated by the conflict in Ukraine and by inflation, which every day is affecting more regional countries and leading them tosituations of internal unrest. “The Arab world has a problem of obsolete, import-dependent agriculture and waterscarcity,” she noted, adding that the countries’ leaders would need to find new sources of grain supply and improve their own agricultural systems.

Hassanein said that besides addressing issues such as food security, the economy, and the global energy crisis, host Algeria was seeking to place the Palestinian issue at the center of the summit discussions.

Boltuc agreed that the Palestinian subject would be addressed, noting that it was the only subject on which all Arab League member states had agreed since the very beginning.

 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman performs morning prayer as he arrives to wash the Holy Kabaa on behalf of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in the Grand Mosque in the Holy City of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 16 2022.  (credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD/REUTERS) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman performs morning prayer as he arrives to wash the Holy Kabaa on behalf of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in the Grand Mosque in the Holy City of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 16 2022. (credit: BANDAR ALGALOUD/REUTERS)

On Sunday, the Algerian local media reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be not attending the summit ostensibly on his doctors’ recommendations. The reports quoted a call from the Saudi Foreign Ministry informing the Algerian president’s office that the crown prince “apologized for not being able to participate in the Arab Summit to be held on November 1 in Algiers, in accordance with the recommendations of doctors who advise him not to travel.”

Is MbS's absence because of Saudi Arabia’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war? 

Hassanein believes, however, that MbS’s absence is rather due to “Saudi Arabia’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war and the Syrian problem, as well as by the Abraham Accords, which Algeria stands against, and they are sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

This is the first Arab summit since the signing of the Abraham Accords. However, Hasnaoui believes that this topic will not be discussed since the Arab League has historically given the Palestinians special status to participate in its deliberations, and the Abraham Accords only serve to foment divisions between some Arab states.

“I don’t think that the normalization [with Israel] topic will be mentioned. The focus will be rather on Palestine’s territorial integrity and the advancement of the peace process within a two-state solution,” she said.