On 31 March the annual Arab League summit kicked off after a one day meeting of the League’s Economic and Social Committee. Which in a nutshell shows perfectly well what has befallen to that once important forum inter Arabic politics. Because with all the problems of the Middle East now, while much of the global attention focuses on the migration crisis having a one day formal meeting with little to none debate symbolizes the general apathy. In recent years, but especially since the so called Arab Spring the annual Arab summits rarely caught the attention even of the Arab press, not to mention global attention. Because if anything tangible was to happen there, it was not more political squabbling between certain states. With rarely any result, and with almost total disregard to general Arab cooperation. And if anything tangible really took place, that was always detrimental to the interests of general Arab cause. Therefore it is not surprising, that the world payed very little attention to the 2019 Arab League summit in Tunis.
Yet this time, unlike last year in aẓ-Ẓahrān, Saudi Arabia there was real importance for the meeting and the results were not as predictable. Therefore there was at least some anticipation, that the leading member states finally engage in dialogue and put the house in order. And the climate was even perfect for it, as so many outer pressures would seemingly force a common stance in a number of issues. Enough to mention the Warsaw summit, the American steps to give away Arab lands – Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – to Israel, or the collapse of Dā‘iš, which – at least theoretically – was a concern for all. As if God finally gave them matters to deal with, on which they all can agree. And the members met in a neutral, yet very symbolic place, since Tunis is where the so called Arab Spring started. And now that reaching its end, even its “achievements” turning really sour by now, Tunis would seem to be the perfect place to start over from where everything turned upside down in 2010. As if faith would have it, they could go back to the last point, when there was some sort of general Arab cooperation and still some hope for the future.
Not surprisingly, the results were terrible. The summit was filled with scandalous nuisances, and even on the biggest questions the final step is just shockingly weightless. Because the only thing, that they could agree is that they commonly refuse to accept the American decision to give away Jerusalem and the Golan to Israel. But that should have been the minimum, the starting point to begin with. There is no retaliation however, no next common step, which acts much like a bitter and reluctant acceptance, rather than a solid retaliation. Which really poses the question, how they ended up like this? And while Qatar is playing a role on pariah now, the question of its al-Jazeera network is truly telling and shocking accurate. Is it time for the Arab League to disband? The summit and its controversies give us an ideal opportunity this week to assess, in what state the Arab world is in now.
The big matters
In a number of matters this summit could have been historic and many of the issues are not even related to each other. First among them is crisis of the GCC, which goes on as a Gulf Cold War for almost two years now. One interesting note is that even before the summit begun the Saudi diplomacy was very active with the host country. This time the Saudi delegation was not lead by the otherwise so active Crown Prince, but by king Salmān personally. Which gives very interesting indications about the state Saudi Arabia is in now, since for almost a year king Salmān was seldom seen and was even rumored to be dead. More and more the international press, but even the politics started to view his son, Muḥammad ibn Salmān as de facto ruler of the kingdom, but his standing significantly fell since the Hašoqğī case, and nor his North African PR tour – which as we discussed in an earlier issue remarkable avoided Morocco and was met with fierce protests both in Tunisia and Algeria -, nor his Pakistan-India-China tour managed to salvage it. He was not even present in the summit, which can even be understood as demotion by his father. As we also discussed earlier, Riyadh is very busy to find new allies in the region and the ideal scene for that is North Africa. That is why Saudi Arabia tries to pour money into Algeria recently, though with the current crisis there Algiers in just to busy for grand politics now. The same approach was taken now with Tunisia, since the Saudi delegation arrived days before the summit to conduct bilateral talks with the Tunisian government and the sides signed a number of economic agreements, while Riyadh raised its support to $500 million. Which might just be the last moral victory for the old Tunisian President, as on 4 April Qā’id as-Sibsī announced not to run for more terms. His tenure was widely unsuccessful to lead Tunisia out of the internal crisis, which paralyzed the state since 2011, his departure may cause even bigger uncertainty. Now, whether Riyadh is gearing for the next Tunisian elections to promote a more closer ally, or simply tried to sweeten the image and not let the summit turn into an anti-Saudi tribunal is hard to know, but it as noticeable, that there was a real anticipation to force Saudi Arabia to change its stance on two key questions and none of them happened. One of them is the war on Yemen, which is a scandalous fiasco for Riyadh and Muḥammad ibn Salmān personally, and which ravaged Yemen without any political or economical gain. It was expected, that there would be pressure on Salmān now, to end the war, or some sort of reconciliation process would kick in. But none of that happened. The second key question was the matter of Qatar. Ever since the diplomatic war was started by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh – joined by some Arab countries the biggest among them Egypt – against Doha in June 2017, this was the first inter Arab forum where both Saudi Arabia and Qatar represented themselves. And both of them on the highest possible level, by the monarchs themselves. But after the official opening ceremony and acceptance of a joint statement renouncing the American decision to hand over the Golan to Israel the Qatar emir Tamīm ibn Ḥahmad left the summit.
Here again many guessed, that there could be some sort of rapprochement between the sides in Gulf, but if there were hopes for that, they failed miserably. And here is another interesting controversy. Egyptian press claimed, while Egypt is one the countries which cut their ties with Qatar almost two years ago claimed, that emir Tamīm was scheduled to give a speech and take part in the discussions. That would indicate, that there were intentions to ease the struggle between the parties by the Arab League, but for some reason yet to be revealed the Qataris got upset and suddenly left. Days later, however, on 4 April Tunisian President as-Sibsī claimed, that the Qatari emir never planned to take part in the discussions or to give a speech, and he only payed a courtesy visit as gift to the Tunisian host. Now if we suppose, that this is true, the question is even bigger why Tamīm came to the meeting at all. The circumstances much rather indicate, that the Arab League Secretariat and the Tunisians themselves were, and still are trying hard to facilitate some sort of agreement in the Gulf. Because unless that struggle is solved, the Gulf states being the wealthiest and with the biggest weight in the region now, no real joint effort can be reached nor on the Syrian, nor on the Jerusalem folder. In other words, the road to Damascus and Jerusalem goes through the bridge between Doha and Riyadh. And though the attempt failed, the Tunisians even now are about to save this process by trying not to let any sides get offended. Overall, however, what could have been the beginning of a reconciliation proved the Arab League incapable either to be a reconciliatory body, or force a settlement between the parties. And from that angle we can understand why the Qatari press is so bitter about the Arab League.
Apart of the Gulf, there was also the question of Syria. After the Syrian government represented itself in the last Arab Parliament summit in Amman, though its membership is still suspended in the Arab League, it was naturally expected that either Damascus would represent itself in Tunis, or at least an official communique would express a will to welcome the Syrians back at the negotiating table. Since the matter of the Golan caused general outcry in the Arab public opinion the previous week and that matter was one of the key questions of the summit – the only thing about which there was an accepted joint statement – it was only natural to assume, that the membership of Syria would get settled. But nor Syria was invited, nor was a motion put forward to ask Damascus to rejoin. Damascus made it very clear before, that it would not rejoin the Arab League summits until serious apologies were made and reparations offered, since it was not Syria, which left the League, but it was removed in its biggest crisis. Which is, quite understandable understood by the Syrians as if the Arab League was complicit in a conspiracy against its government.
The lack of Syrian representation in Tunis further delegitimizes the Arab League, since how could it be taken seriously as trying to defend the rights of a country, which they themselves don’t accept. How could they defend a country which even in the UN has stronger representation. Nor do they make serious steps to repair their relations with. In this context the accepted joint statement reinforcing Syrian sovereignty over the Golan is rather void, since it offers no help to the Syrians, nor contains any retaliatory steps either against the Americans, nor the Israelis. So why would they step back after a simple expression of dislike. There is just no pressing consequences, therefore the Tunis summit works much more – though in an indirect fashion – to encourage further transgressions to Arab rights. The notion, that in the chain on American gifts to Israel the West Bank could be the next might seemed as and exaggeration, but after Tunis looks much more menacing.
And here we arrive to the biggest matters of the Tunis summit, the question of the Golan and Jerusalem. Or in other words the Palestinian and the Syrian folders. Jerusalem was hardly on the agenda as the Secretariat condemned Turkish and Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. And after the Qataris left, the joined statement only addressed the Golan matter, not really Jerusalem. Which raises the question. How are the two cases separable? As they are clearly parts of the same chain of events.
Some petty squabbling
If at the end we say the results are less then reassuring about the future of he Arab League, actually that is not surprising. The initial signs were bad, and the process went worse. In this sense it is a smaller miracle, that they even managed to get this result out. First of all, who was even there? The height number of absentees is very telling. Syria was not there is one thing, apart from that 9 other members did not even represent themselves on high levels. The strangest is the absence of Egypt, as as-Sīsī announced beforehand, that he would not join. Yet at the last second he did join the summit, causing quite some confusion. The Algerian and the Sudanese Presidents were absent for the current crises in their countries, though Algeria did represent itself in the highest possible level in this situation. The Moroccan government also stayed away. Nor Bahrain, not the Emirates were represented either by their monarchs or by their top politicians. Which made Saudi Arabia to represent alone all those states, which are by now for two years waging and economical a diplomatic war on Qatar. And this sense we can understand the Qataris being hurt, since that is clearly no sign of good will to solve the matter. And the Omani government also did not show up with no apparent reason for them staying away. This gives us a pattern, that the real big players stayed away, or did not really want to join.
As the summit began and anticipations were still high, the sudden departure of the Qatari monarch marked the day. Than only half an hour after him king Salmān also left the summit. Than in a number of occasions the leaders even failed to remember each other’s names properly. The social media and the Arab press went viral mocking the summit by pointing out, that many leaders are simply sleeping in the open sessions. Which made the whole appearance disorderly and unserious, very deeply questioning the rationale for such forum.
The even bigger scandals
Having all these high hopes for a meeting and with so many pressing matters at hand it would have been so easy to achieve some victories, at least symbolic ones. Having failed to achieve any is undoubtedly the biggest scandal. Because it just gives the green light for ever further deterioration. But it is not any less scandalous that a number of other important questions were not even on the agenda. The Yemeni war was not addressed, which will eventually lead to a stage, where UN bodies will intervene and ease the dire humanitarian drama, which should be an Arab matter in the first place. The fall of Dā‘iš, and how its black legacy will be uprooted in the region also failed to catch the attention. Nor the future of Libya.
The root of the problem is, that now that the waves of the so called Arab Spring have passed, this could have been the first Arab summit, where the consequences could have been dealt with. That, however, would require a capability to put the quarrels behind and face past mistakes. The most painful is, that such realization seems to be totally absent.
Very clearly Arab leaders took the summit what it is. A political playground for some, to find audience for their own agendas, and void formality for others. That is a very serious symptom of deep chaos in the Arab world, at least in the political level. Because if eventually all hope gets lost in joint Arab endeavors eventually all states will look for outer supporters, which are more reliable.
After such high hopes and so little results the idea of winners might come strange here. But there are beneficiaries of this summit in Tunis. The new American policy to spoil Israel with Arab lands clearly crossing the international norms just got reaffirmed. Because if the most concerned, the Arab states themselves fail to put up serious resistance even in the case of holy Jerusalem, why should Washington hesitate, and why should any party work harder for Arab rights, than themselves? In the same context Israel won big time in Tunis as well. Not only no real trouble is about to come for the annexation of the Golan – especially before the elections -, but Syria was not reintegrated to the Arab League, so for the time being Damascus stays somewhat isolated in the Arab World.
The silent winner is on the other hand is Saudi Arabia, though not likely for its long term benefit. It managed to avoid criticism not only for the war on Yemen, or the struggle with Qatar, but even managed to poison the atmosphere in Tunis. As with the Qataris left the summit first and in a scandalous fashion, Riyadh comes out positive from the fight. And as the Arab League criticism focused on Turkish and Iranian interference Saudi Arabia actually scores victory over Qatar. Since Qatar has good relations with both countries, mostly with Turkey, these remarks put Qatar in the bad light, while reaffirms Saudi Arabia’s hostile approach against them.
What the future holds
Though in this light we can understand much better, that al-Jazeera’s suggestion to simply just disband the Arab League is a sign of Qatari frustration, but there really is a very deep problem in the Arab world now. Clear signs of deterioration can be seen. Twenty years ago regional and inter Arab forums were showing a much more positive picture. The Arab League already passed its heyday, but was still serious and its specified organization still made progress. The GCC was developing very promisingly and in a few years talks started about common currency and an EU like deeper association. By now all these talks are forgotten and the GCC seems to be a matter of the past. North Africa also had twenty years ago its own regional cooperation platform, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), which was not functioning too well from the beginning, but at least there was an approach to mend fences between the rivaling members. By now the AMU is also practically forgotten, though officially still exists.
These are clear signs of disintegration in the Arab world. The result manifests now in two ways. Any Arab state with long term strategy seeks meaningful outer partners to secure its interests. Qatar found Turkey, Syria for long has Iran by its side, and the same is true to Saudi Arabia with its American orientation. On the other hand any power, which aims to pursue its on interests in the region finds very little response. Even for the biggest offenses.
Therefore the original question, whether is it time to disband the Arab League is not jut that propagandistic, after all.