Five Takeaways from the Arab League’s 28th summit

Five Takeaways from the Arab League’s 28th summit

Many in the Middle Eastern region and beyond expected low expectations for the Arab League, as its 28th summit commenced on March 29, 2017. The 72-year-old League has often failed to deal with regional challenges and has largely become a spectacle to highlight Arab countries’ differences rather than their commitment to unified political action.

Numerous Arabs accordingly mocked the recent summit being held in Jordan’s Dead Sea region as a last attempt to revive common Arab action from the lowest place on Earth.

Nevertheless, this conference possessed a larger attendance of Arab state leaders compared to previous gatherings. While much of the meeting’s happenings were predictable, they also forecasted some key developments in the region.

Here are five takeaways from the Arab League’s 28th summit:

(1) Absent parties to the Syrian conflict

While Jordan rebuffed requests from Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt to allow Bashar al-Assad’s government to attend the summit, delegates from the Syrian opposition were also not invited. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 when its civil war broke out. Nearly six years later, Syrian representatives are still absent amid regional differences over the conflict’s future.

Many Gulf states and Jordan have previously called for Bashar al-Assad’s removal, while countries like Iraq and Egypt have hesitantly supported the al-Assad government in response to Islamist—and Salafi jihadist—elements within the Syrian opposition. The summit’s final communique consequently stressed the need for a political solution and stable government in Syria based on U.N. resolutions and Geneva principles without mentioning the future of the al-Assad regime.

This suggests that the region’s priority is containing the Syrian conflict within the nation’s borders over favoring a particular political outcome. This position is also reinforced by Arab nations’ uncertainty towards the new U.S. administration’s Syria policy.

Even after recent U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian Shayrat airfield in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Abu Gheit issued a balanced response, rejecting “regional and international powers’ attempts to politick over the corpses of Syrians or at the cost of [Syrian] sovereignty” while claiming that the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack “must be held accountable.”

(2) Palestine a priority

Apart from Arab pronouncements to combat terrorism, Palestine was the focal point of the summit. The League’s final communique reaffirmed the 2002 Beirut summit Arab Peace Initiative that prescribed an independent Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. Arab leaders also opposed Israeli settlements on the West Bank and called on the world community to not move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.

This position aimed to signal unified opposition to Israel’s increased settlements on the West Bank. It also sought to ensure the United States does not ignore Palestine’s perspective and national aspirations amid the Trump administration’s eagerness to produce an Israel-Palestine peace deal. A week after the summit, two influential players in the Israel-Palestine peace process—Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—visited Washington to accordingly convey the singular Arab position.

(3) Arab leaders want to contain (and engage) Iran

Without labeling Iran, Arab leaders condemned foreign interference in Arab affairs and attempts to stir up sectarian tensions. This statement particularly satisfied Saudi Arabia, who sees Iran’s growing influence and encroachment across the Levant and Gulf as a challenge to Saudi regional power. It also pleased Jordan, who identifies Iranian support for Syria’s al-Assad regime and sponsorship of militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon as one of the drivers of instability along its borders.

Unlike the League’s stronger denunciations of Iranian foreign policy in the past, the decision to not name the Islamic Republic this time perhaps reflected emerging ties among Iran and some Gulf countries. Oman reportedly cautioned the summit against forceful anti-Iran rhetoric, an unsurprising move from the typically neutral Sultanate.

Yet Muscat has recently displayed pro-Iranian leanings, with reports suggesting its tacit acceptance of Iranian communications and weapons-transfers to Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni regime. Other Gulf countries have also displayed willingness to improve ties with Iran: Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Hamad Al Sabah made a visit to Tehran earlier this year, and Qatar and Iran are jointly seeking increased oil production in the shared North Field-South Pars area. All this indicates that the coherence of anti-Iran policy from the Arab League—and moreover the Gulf Cooperation Council—remains uncertain.

(4) Egypt-Saudi Arabia relations thawed

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seemed to reconcile their differences in a private meeting at the summit. Relations between their two nations have been strained amid competing claims of sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands as well as their support for opposing sides of the Syrian conflict. The result was Saudi Arabia cutting off financial and energy assistance to an Egypt struggling with a weak economy and a restive population cognizant of subsidy cutbacks.

Now Saudi Aramco has resumed petroleum shipments to Egypt and King Salman has invited President al-Sisi to Riyadh. The Sisi government has also vowed to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia despite Egypt’s high court previously annulling the island transfer.

All this is important because Egypt’s regional position requires the country to stay afloat with aid, and revitalized ties with Saudi Arabia may help Sisi overcome his growing unpopularity among Egyptians and some government officials in the run up to his 2018 re-election.  

(5) The Arab Spring’s legacy is still fresh

Underlying nearly all the summit’s policy discussions were governance questions amid the Arab Spring’s aftermath. The 2011 Arab uprisings generated violent civil wars, terrorism, counter-revolutionary coups—and in a couple of cases, reformism and fragile democratization. Even now the legacy of those movements can be felt in the Arab world with more activist citizenries and cautious regimes.

Yet the Arab leaders’ summit statements underscore their differing approaches to governance and stability in a post-Arab Spring climate. On one hand, leaders like Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah view the region’s popular uprisings as a “dark period” that undermined national security. Egypt’s Sisi went further in describing them as battles between “terrorist groups” and a “weakening nation-state”.

On the other hand, leaders including Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo claimed that the region’s challenges were “caused by domestic disagreements” in which “there is no alternative to dialogue”. Qatari Emir Tamim in Hamad al-Thani also adopted this reformist view in claiming that terrorism “grows from alienation from society…[and] the lack of rule of law,” and that it was unwise to “declare political groups that [they] disagree with as ‘terrorists’ despite the fact that they are not.”

At this time, the former camp appears to carry more international legitimacy, emboldened by the real and rhetorical support in eradicating terrorism from Russia, European leaders, and the new U.S. administration. Still, Arab leaders’ contrasting perspectives point to the dynamic and dueling political structures upon which the region’s short- and long-term challenges will play out.


About Author

Azhar Unwala

Azhar Unwala is an analyst for government and corporate clients in the Washington, D.C. area. He was formerly a researcher at a Department of Defense-sponsored think tank and the Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs' International Engagement on Cyber series. In addition to studying and extensively traveling in the Middle East, he holds a B.S. in International Politics and Arab Studies from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.