Formal shift on refugees unlikely at Arab summit

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi won't attend this year's Riyadh summit due to his on going spat with Saudi King Abdullah.

qadafi 88 (photo credit: )
qadafi 88
(photo credit: )
Much of the importance attributed to this year's Arab League summit, set for Riyadh on Wednesday and Thursday, has to do with last year's lackluster meeting in Sudan. Many member states did not attend in 2006 because of security concerns and political differences with the Khartoum regime. Tunisia didn't send a representative because it claims Sudan backed Islamic militants from its opposition. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt thinks Sudanese officers tried to kill him in 1995. The list goes on. Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi attended the summit in Khartoum, but won't attend this year's Riyadh summit because of his spat with Saudi King Abdullah from 2003, as well as claims that he tried to assassinate the Saudi monarch. Abdullah didn't attend the Khartoum summit because of Gaddafi's presence and close relations with Sudan. Gaddafi - to focus on one leader for a moment - would also most likely want his one-state solution plan for the Israelis and Palestinians, known as "Isratine" and published in the "White Book," to be taken more seriously by the League, which instead plans to reissue its two-state solution, known as the Beirut Declaration of 2002, initiated by none other than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Gaddafi's antics at the summits are famous. He has more than once walked out of meetings, made derogatory remarks to Arab leaders and ridiculed Arab policy in general. He called the Palestinians and Israelis "stupid," and said prime minister Ariel Sharon was a Palestinian agent since he created the suicide bombers. Gaddafi's absence may mean fewer jokes, and in general a more serious summit may take place this year, with Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine the key issues. Darfur, however, may not make the cut. One of Gaddafi's rivals, Mubarak, who has been the butt of many Libyan jokes, was supposed to host this year's meeting in Egypt, but agreed to let Saudi Arabia take charge. The Saudis are currently major players in three regional conflicts: Lebanon, Iraq and, of course, in the Palestinian arena, especially given the peace proposal and the Mecca agreement between Hamas and Fatah. In Lebanon, the Saudis are trying to play broker to the warring factions. The assassination in 2005 of their man in Beirut, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, prompted their renewed interest in calming things down, but they also have a historic role in the Levant. In 1989, the Saudis hosted the conference in Taif that ended the brutal Lebanese civil war. The Saudis also helped push Syria's military out of Lebanon two years ago. Recently, London's Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that Saudi Arabia is interested in making serious headway in Lebanon before the summit gets underway. In Iraq, Sunni Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states and Egypt, are concerned over Iran's growing influence. Saudia Arabia is certainly not interested in a strong Iranian-orientated Shi'ite community in Iraq, only partially because of Arab nationalism and Sunni loyalty. Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq, has an oppressed Shi'ite population of its own that could rise up against the regime with the help of their Iraqi brethren. Some estimates put Shi'ites at 15 percent of the population. As for the Palestinians, the renewed Arab League peace proposal will be the main story. It is doubtful the member states will back out of the clause citing General Assembly Resolution 194, calling for a just solution to the refugee problem, but some Arab analysts suggest listening closer to statements to the press by Arab leaders. One might notice a less adamant stand in their spoken statements than in their written ones. For example, Syrian President Bashar Assad was recently interviewed by French TV, and excerpts were published by Syria's official news agency. Assad, whose regime is known for supporting and hosting hard-line Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad and Ahmed Jabril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian-General Command, said that while the lands occupied in 1967 must be returned, other issues are open for negotiations. How the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, set to attend the summit, will treat the matter remains to be seen. Whether or not Somalia will make the agenda is another question. Meanwhile, Ethiopian forces remain in Mogadishu despite Arab League protests, protecting the pro-Western government that basically lost the country a long time ago. Recent battles in the capital show that the Islamists are not going to sit down while Christian forces take over the country, a sentiment many Somalis can go along with. Darfur may again be the victim of Arab disagreement. For example, Assad, for various reasons, including his concern over foreign intervention in Syria, has backed Khartoum's position on Darfur, opposing the arrival of international troops. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on Lebanon's militias - i.e. Hizbullah and the Palestinians - to disarm and for foreign forces - i.e. Syria - to withdraw, bears great resemblance to UN Resolution 1556, calling on the government-supported militias in Darfur to be disarmed. Gaddafi, with his close ties to Khartoum and Chad, isn't going to support a UN force in the region either. So far, Arab states have provided only 10% of the $150 million they pledged to the African Union mission in the war-torn region, which remains severely underfunded. Even so, as always, the general hope is that the League's summit will somehow unite a divided Arab world and help solve the disputes and problems ravaging member states, both rich and poor. Whether or not the bickering Arab leaders can reach operative results for the benefit of their people will prove whether Libya was right in saying, in 2002, the year it temporarily withdrew its membership, "The Arab League is a toothless and clawless institution... It hasn't been able to solve one Arab problem."