Regional pressures, growing divisions undermine Arab summit in Beirut

Analysts expressed scepticism over how Aoun’s calls for unified action in the face of the region’s refugee crisis might manifest itself.
Sunday 27/01/2019
A window on region’s fractures. The opening session of the fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut, January 20.	 (AFP)
A window on region’s fractures. The opening session of the fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut, January 20. (AFP)

TUNIS - Rather than instilling a sense of unity, Beirut’s hosting of the fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit underscored divisions between countries, with the conference poorly attended, major regional issues overlooked and even its location subject to dispute.

While rancour over Syria’s exclusion from the summit and Libya’s boycott of it grabbed much of the attention, progress was made, including a commitment to establishing an Arab free trade zone and increased international support for countries hosting refugees and displaced people.

Of the eight heads of state expected, only two showed up — Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, speaking at the January 20 meeting, highlighted a theme central to his own political future, the safe return of refugees to Syria “without tying that to reaching a political solution.” He suggested the establishment of an Arab bank for reconstruction and development “to help all affected Arab states overcome adversity and contribute to their sustainable economic growth.”

Analysts expressed scepticism over how Aoun’s calls for unified action in the face of the region’s refugee crisis might manifest itself.

“The various countries’ response regarding the Syrian refugees is determined by the individual Arab countries’ relations with the Syrian regime,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, “as well as their perception of the safety of these refugees in case of their return.

“So far, while there is a slow rapprochement between the Arab world and Syria, it has not yet reached a level of normalisation that would prompt a refugee return.”

The exclusion of Syria from the summit proved contentious. While caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri opposes any normalisation with Damascus, Hezbollah and its allies press for both the refugees’ repatriation and Syria’s return to the Arab League, which expelled it in 2011.

In a speech before the summit, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah and the son-in-law of Aoun, said: “Syria is the biggest absentee in our conference… Syria should be in our arms rather than throwing it in the arms of terrorism.”

“We should not wait to get permission for its return so that we don’t commit a historic shame by suspending a member because of external orders,” Bassil said.

Earlier, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim also voiced support for Damascus’s return to the Arab fold.

There was also the burning of Libyan flags by the Shia-dominated Amal Movement in protest over what it claimed has been underwhelming cooperation from Tripoli into the investigation of the 1978 disappearance of the group’s founder, Imam Musa Sadr, while in Libya.

Uncertain their delegation would even be allowed to land, Libya’s internationally recognised government elected to stay away from the conference.

“Arab multilateral institutions have been steadily losing even their symbolic relevance in recent years, with the level of attendance in Arab League summits reflecting the state of bilateral relations between the host state and other Arab countries rather than the relevance of the Arab League itself,” Omari said.

With fissures running through the Gulf Cooperation Council and agreement over basic regional tenets proving impossible across the Arab world, the ability of the Arab League to act as a catalyst for change appears overly ambitious. “Arab unity has always been more of a slogan than a policy or a reality,” Omari said. “Today, even that slogan has lost its lustre.”

There are many factors causing this, Omari suggested, ranging from pan-Arabism’s image as a relic of the past to damage caused to the ideal by countries such as Bashar Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

As each Arab country carves out its own policies and objectives within a global context, the notion of pan-Arabism is looking increasingly archaic.

“Specific identities of individual Arab states have also matured,” Omari said, “as each state develops its own character and deals with its own specific challenges and opportunities. The lack of effectiveness of the Arab League and other pan-Arab institutions has contributed to this process.”

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