Experts debate Arab world’s priorities on eve of summit

The many challenges Arabs face domestically should dictate a new perspective on regional cooperation.
Sunday 24/03/2019
Arab League Foreign Ministers meet in Cairo, March 6. (AFP)
Conflicting visions. Arab League Foreign Ministers meet in Cairo, March 6. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia will soon host the 30th Arab League summit, although reaching a consensus on a common “Arab system” at the meetings is likely to prove elusive.

Arab leaders, who are to gather March 31 in Tunis, will attempt to shape an architecture of pan-Arab solidarity often referred to as the “Arab system.”

Arab experts, who met two weeks before the summit, noted that the Arab region is more divided than it has been since the creation of the Arab League 75 years ago.

Diplomatic figures and experts from the Arab region attended a conference organised by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, a presidency-affiliated think-tank, to discuss “Challenges to Common Arab Action Amid Regional and International Changes.”

Participants described an Arab world at a loss in imposing its priorities and interests while non-Arab regional powers, such as Iran, Turkey and Israel, threaten the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Arab world.

The Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki said “the pressures of regional powers are unprecedented.”

“The intervention of Turkey is becoming permanent and open. The Turks are giving no attention to the requirements of good neighbourhood,” he added.

Zaki said Tehran’s intervention in Syria and Iraq is part of its “proxy wars with the West.”

Along with Russia’s role, encroachment by Turkey and Iran is expected to determine the future of Syria and influence how the Arab summit handles the possible readmission of Syria to the Arab League. The decision is likely to hinge on an Arab consensus that looks difficult to achieve.

The summit is expected to recommit to the Palestinian cause and take notice that US President Donald Trump’s peace plan has been late in coming, reflecting the Arab world’s receding influence in the world. His shift to Israeli position legitimising annexation of the Golan issue will add to the same impression.

Mahmoud Khemiri, a senior Tunisian Foreign Ministry official, said “the system of Arab action has yet to rise to the level of dealing with current challenges as conflicts in the region are being dealt with from outside the Arab framework.”

Conference participants warned that populist anti-liberal forces in the West would not be short-lived political and social phenomena but could herald wider upheaval in the global order. They said such trends could affect Arab issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, and relations between the Arab world and the West.

Former Tunisian Ambassador Mohamed Ibrahim Hsairi said: “The world is experiencing a phase of deep changes with new structure and trends. The Arab world should not be absent or sidelined. The region must participate in this reconstruction of international relations.”

Experts said they deplored the “loss of hope” among Arabs that their governments would reduce divisions and “nationalistic insularity” to overcome aftershocks of the “Arab spring,” which have left Syria in ruins, Yemen in war and Libya in utter chaos.

The many challenges Arabs face domestically should dictate a new perspective on regional cooperation. Iraqi expert Darem al-Bassam said Arabs must step up changes at home in education, technology and economic diversification to be part of the world’s “chains of values” and develop political systems that anticipate changes and prevent instability.

“The region is in a state of confusion and stagnation despite the progress made in mass education and poverty alleviation,” said former Tunisian Minister of Culture Mongi Bousnina.

“We must move fast in quality education to control technology and break with cultural backwardness and possess thinking and political processes that elevate our contribution in the world of culture, science and creation.”