A poorly attended Arab League summit in Tunis with no concrete results

US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan, published a scant few days before the summit, shows what little regard he has for meeting Arab heads of state.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf attend the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia March 31, 2019 (photo credit: ZOUBEIR SOUISSI / REUTERS)
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul Gheit, Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf attend the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia March 31, 2019
Of the 22 members of the Arab League, only 13 came to the yearly meeting of the organization in Tunis on March 30. Conspicuous by their absence were Sudanese President Omar el Bashir and Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, both facing unrest at home. However, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were there to give some luster to an otherwise dull reunion dwarfed by conflicts in the Arab world.
In principle, all Arab states are members of the Arab League, created in 1945 by the British with a view to perpetuating their control of these states and their influence in the region under the guise of helping them develop their economies. Today Great Britain’s influence has waned. Arab countries did not find their way to democracy and the Middle East descended into military regimes and fratricide wars. There was no attempt to tackle problems or to establish a desperately needed economic collaboration. The much-touted union never coalesced and was further disrupted by the 2011 Arab Spring, which fizzled into civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and a military regime in Egypt.
Yearly Heads of States summits became less and less relevant, a mere occasion for discreet exchanges of views with occasional flare-ups, such as Saudi king Abdallah and Libyan president Muhammar Khadafi trading insults in 2009. Each summit ended in a joint declaration on current issues, usually carefully crafted compromises offending no one and lacking operative decisions.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan, published a scant few days before the summit, shows what little regard he has for the meeting of Arab heads of state.
IN TUNIS, Arab leaders once again demonstrated that their national interests take precedence over unity or addressing burning issues. The Emir of Qatar, embroiled in a conflict with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, surprised everyone by coming, but left without making his scheduled speech at the opening session, apparently in protest after the League Secretary General condemned explicitly Iran and Turkey’s intervention in Arab countries, and went on mentioning and condemning the security zone that Turkey wants to establish in Syria along its border with that country. The Emir, who unlike most Arab countries, is a close ally of Turkey and enjoys good relations with Iran, took it as a personal insult.
As to the Saudi King, he made a point of leaving the assembly before the speeches of UN secretary Antonio Gutierrez and EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who were going to point out the responsibility of his kingdom and of the Emirates for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The summit was over in a matter of hours. Most heads of states had waited until the morning to arrive, fearing that a sudden crisis would prevent their coming, but the Saudi King, though well aware of the risks, came to the Tunisian capital two days early for a state visit, taking the opportunity to review the meeting’s agenda with the Tunisian president to ensure that his country’s interests would not be harmed. He may also have helped persuade the Egyptian president to attend in spite of his fear of demonstrations against him by human rights organizations. Abdel Fattah al Sisi did come and spoke of the need to unite in the fight against terror. The King of Morocco decided to stay at home because of the crisis between his country and Saudi Arabia since his decision to leave the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Yemen; furthermore, Riyadh had publicly condemned Morocco’s stand on Western Sahara. None of these subjects were discussed; the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was not on the agenda; nor was the re-admission of Syria, whose membership had been frozen following the civil war. Its seat remained empty.
THE TRADITIONAL final declaration was comprised of 19 articles, starting with a lengthy condemnation of Israel’s many crimes as well as a rebuke to the United States; the recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan forcefully condemned and declared null and void. The centrality of the Palestinian problem for the Arab nation was emphasized; so was achieving regional peace, presented as a strategic Arab goal, on the basis of the Arab/Saudi initiative, including the creation of an independent Palestinian state within the pre-1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israeli steps in the West Bank were also declared null and void, especially measures taken to “Judaize” East Jerusalem and deny its “Arabic identity,” including on the Temple Mount and recent clashes at Gate of Mercy. Recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel by America was roundly denounced.
Altogether, the lengthy developments on the Palestinian issue appeared to have been intended to counter commentaries in Israel and in the West, to the effect that it has lost its centrality in the Arab world – while letting leaders concentrate on their problems at home in the aftermath of the 2011 revolts.
Iran took second place to the Palestinian issue and was accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states and endangering them; of religious incitement of Shia against Sunni Muslims; of arming militias and de facto terror organizations active in a number of Arab countries. All activities, according the final declaration, contrary to good neighborhood and international law; it is demanded of Iran that it withdraws its militias. There is also a special condemnation for the firing of missiles manufactured by Iran on Saudi Arabia (a reference to missiles fired by Houthis).
Then there are articles devoted to other matters: the three Gulf islands belonging to the Emirates taken over by Iran; the need to find a solution for Libya and Syria; to preserve the integrity of Iraq, where large tracks of its northern region were conquered by Turkey. Concern was also expressed for the integrity of Lebanon, since the Shebaa Farms area is still held by Israel. Somalia, a failed state, is mentioned as well.
Emphasis was put on the fact that Islam is a religion of peace that should not be associated with terror. As for economic cooperation between the states, an important element in past summits, it got only a brief mention this time, with no attempt to advance this complex issue.
Altogether, the final declaration was nothing but a short catalogue of some of the issues Arab countries are dealing with, with no effort to deal with them.
One is left wondering how to interpret the harsh condemnations of Israel and the lengthy considerations on the Palestinian conflict in view of the fact that Israel has relations at various levels with most Arab countries: peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, close security relations with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, visits of sport delegations and ministers in Abu Dhabi; visit of the Israeli prime minister in Oman; tourist links with Morocco and Tunisia. Isn’t time for a reevaluation of the relationship between Israel and Arab states?
The Emirates foreign minister dared raise the subject in his interview to the Gulf News Agency two days before the summit – but no other statesman took up the gauntlet.
All participants hastened to go back to their countries. Arab media mentioned the summit briefly on the day it happened – and the following day it was as if it had not taken place. The distinguished members had not even been able to fix a date and a place for their next yearly meeting.
The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden and senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.