Arab institutions must adapt to new realities

Arab governments are realising that the fate of the region is no longer in their hands.
Sunday 22/04/2018
National banners of the Arab League countries at the site of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran. (AFP)
Beyond the show of flags. National banners of the Arab League countries at the site of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran. (AFP)

There is no mystery behind why Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud chose to call the recent Arab League meeting the “Jerusalem Summit.” Riyadh wanted to remind everybody that the Palestinian cause remains the one cause in the history of the Arab world that garnered an absolute consensus.

By doing so, Riyadh also wanted to end the fruitless controversies and rumours regarding the “deal of the century” that the Trump administration has yet to reveal.

The “Jerusalem Summit,” however, had other dimensions. For Riyadh, a “new Saudi Arabia” needs a new Arab organisation. Reorganising the Arab position about Jerusalem requires putting some order in the Arab camp and agreeing on certain undisputed Palestinian core issues plus side issues where divergence remains possible.

The Arab world is aware of the need for a new internal dynamic capable of ensuring its protection from internal fallout and external storms. There are changes coming on a global scale that will lead to redrawing borders in the Arab region. This Arab awareness does not flow from any simplistic ideological framework like the ones that swept the region and some of which gave birth to political regimes selling dreams of unity.

The new Arab awareness is based on realistic considerations that look at Arab institutions from the point of view of Arab interests rather than propaganda tools. Arab governments are realising that the fate of the region is no longer in their hands. Turkey, Iran and Israel, not to mention the major world powers, are pushing their own agendas and affecting the daily lives of Arab citizens.

It is scandalous to see the Arabs absent from all effective international “workshops” seeking to end the Syrian tragedy. They also have no significant role in the Libyan tragedy. Saudi Arabia and the Arab coalition are present in Yemen but that crisis remains essentially a Gulf matter. The Arab League, as the institution federating all Arabs, has no vital role in ending the tragedy of the Yemeni people.

As a political entity, the Arabs have failed to find solutions to the crises of the “Arab Umma” (“Arab Nation”), perhaps because of the confusion surrounding the term “Umma.” In addition, crises at the local level in this Arab country or the other robbed the regional issues of much-needed focus.

The ideology of Arab nationalism, which was popular in the 1960s, lost much of its appeal when it became a sorry excuse for autocratic regimes in the Arab world. As it disappeared, it paved the way for another notion of Arab “Umma,” this time based on shared cultural and identity aspects.

King Salman wanted to dedicate the Arab summit to Jerusalem. The summit came after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s lengthy visit to the United States.

Observers picked up on the collective Arab message: The Arabs reject US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stand fully behind the Palestinian choices that side with the legitimate decisions of the international community regarding Palestinian rights. The Arabs are also saying they have no knowledge of the so-called “deal of the century” and that they still uphold the decisions they took in their 2002 summit.

The 22 Arab countries meeting in Dhahran declared they are not interested in any American political product that uses Jerusalem as a bargaining chip and will not back any plan forced on the Palestinians, especially if it does not take into consideration the recommendations of the Arab Peace Initiative. This initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Thus, the confusion created by the White House is baseless. Being the consummate businessman that he is, Trump had thought that he could bury a complicated historical conflict with one quick deal.

Speeches at the Dhahran summit converged on one pressing need in the Arab region: There must be a regional Arab structure to counteract Iranian meddling in the region.

The issue might hurt some sensitivities in Lebanon and Iraq but the regional context is changing quickly. Consequently, there is no longer room within the Arab organisation for sensitivities. Moreover, Iran’s influence in the region is shrinking and probably has no future in Syria. Arab leaders also fustigated Turkey’s meddling in Iraqi affairs.

At Dhahran, Arab leaders attended the final scenes from the Gulf Shield military exercises with the participation of forces from 24 Arab countries. That was another message to the world: The Arab region is ready to rely on its own military capacities by necessity and for correcting the overall regional context.

The Dhahran summit laid the groundwork for a much-needed and urgent brainstorming in the Arab region. It is true that Arab citizens have become used to witnessing previous summit recommendations die a slow death. This time, however, it looks like there are gnawing concerns shared by all Arabs that will leave the Dhahran agenda open until Arab organisations harmonise with Arab realities.