Preparations for Arab summit under way to face challenging regional issues

Delegates at the Arab summit are expected to officially reject the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Arab officials attend an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, on April 3. (AP)
At crucial juncture. Arab officials attend an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, on April 3. (AP)

CAIRO - Iran’s growing and destabilising influence, Qatar’s intransigence and Arab action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue are expected to dominate discussions at the 29th Arab League summit, scheduled for April 15 in Saudi Arabia, analysts said.

“Formulating a unified Arab stance against Iranian interference in the region is a matter that cannot be delayed,” said Saudi writer Abdulhadi al-Sulami. “Iran’s growing influence in the region poses extreme danger to the security of its countries.”

The summit had been scheduled for late March but was postponed so as not to interfere with Egypt’s presidential elections.

The region has gone through major changes since the Arab League summit last year. Foremost is the increasing concern in Arab capitals about the threat posed by Tehran’s interference in regional matters.

Saudi Arabia expressed alarm after Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels escalated missile attacks on the country. Riyadh says Iran supplied the Houthis with the missiles. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has described such support as “direct military action” that “may be considered an act of war.”

The Houthi missiles are also a threat to ships in the Bab el Mandeb Strait and some Houthi leaders have called for targeting Khartoum in retaliation for Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition backing internationally recognised Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the rebels.

Crown Prince Mohammed, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine, compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Hitler but stressed that Riyadh would prefer to avoid war. “The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world,” the crown prince said.

Arab leaders at the summit will also deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, particularly after US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The Palestinian cause is a central one for almost all Arab countries and for the Arab League itself,” said Arab League spokesman Mahmoud Afifi. “This is something that will not change, regardless of all difficulties.”

The Palestinian-Israeli peace process remains deadlocked and what appeared to be a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation last October is under threat.

The Trump administration claimed to have formulated a new plan for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians but details remain scarce. Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and expressed major disappointment over Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Afifi said delegates at the Arab summit would officially reject the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“The Arabs have their own peace initiative, which they proposed in 2002,” Afifi said. “Arab states are still committed to the initiative.”

He said summit participants agreed to counter Israel’s attempt to win a UN Security Council seat in elections in June at the UN General Assembly.

The deadlock over Qatar’s alleged financing of terrorism is expected to be a major issue at the summit. Last June, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain cut trade and diplomatic ties with Doha after accusing Qatar of supporting terrorist groups.

The so-called Arab quartet sent a list of 13 demands for Qatar to meet to end the crisis. They included Qatar cutting back diplomatic ties with Tehran, severing all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and shuttering Al Jazeera. Doha refused.

During a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in March, Cairo and Abu Dhabi reiterated that they stood by the 13 demands.

Analysts warned of the repercussions of failing to return Qatar into the Arab fold, particularly given efforts to formulate a broad Arab stance to protect regional security.

“By sponsoring terrorist organisations, Qatar jeopardises Arab security,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of Egypt’s Political and Strategic Studies Centre. “This is why the Arabs are badly in need of stopping Doha and reaching agreement on this issue during the summit when top Arab policymakers are present.”