A regular summit in special circumstances

Most Arab countries are looking for alternative spaces other than those available within Arab geography.
Thursday 28/03/2019
Modest expectations. A Tunisian man looks at photos of Arab leaders who attended the 1979 Arab League Summit, in the media centre, at the Culture City in Tunis, March 27. (AP) 
Modest expectations. A Tunisian man looks at photos of Arab leaders who attended the 1979 Arab League Summit, in the media centre, at the Culture City in Tunis, March 27. (AP) 

Nothing indicates that the Arab summit in Tunis will be a meeting of exceptional resolutions or that it will be remarkable in terms of official representation of member countries or in the context of Arab mediation to resolve the crises across the Arab world.

The Arab summit does not promise any breakthroughs. For weeks, Tunisian diplomacy has been confirming that Damascus will not return to the Arab League through its gate. For months, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui has been stressing the necessity to rely on international legitimacy and the United Nations in resolving the existing disputes. It was as if he was telling everybody not to burden the Tunis summit and Tunisian authorities in crisis with more than they can bear.

The problem that lies beyond the reach of the Tunis summit and Tunisia's diplomacy is that the urgent issues that need to be settled in the Arab world necessitate a radical change in the mechanisms of Arab action and the mechanisms of joint Arab action.

There are great Israeli threats to the Palestinian cause embodied in Israel’s tough positions regarding Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem and in its efforts to swallow the West Bank, including the issues of Palestinian prisoners and Palestinian sovereignty, and to permanently annex the Golan Heights.

There are threats from Turkish and Iranian strategies in the Middle East, as well as the structural crisis that hit the Gulf Cooperation Council, the conflict in Yemen and the Red Sea, the geostrategic threats to Sudan and Egypt in their rights to the Nile River and the crisis in Libya.

These accumulated crises would not have reached this level of complexity if the Arab group had minimal systems of crisis management and the ability to influence international decisions.

If crises can become intractable at the level of smaller Arab groupings, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union, it is only natural to expect the Arab League to become ill, sluggish and paralysed.

As long as the Arab League has not developed courses of action, has not created alternative choices at the level of Arab-Arab networking, has not activated mechanisms for joint coordination and has not abandoned the bureaucratic monotony of its meetings and summits, which have become just annual opportunities for public relations, it is normal that a large part of Arab public opinion ends up losing faith in the league and its meetings.

It is unfortunate that Arab League officials have not considered discussing mechanisms for bottom-up cooperation so Arab citizens would have access to a pan-Arab framework as an opportunity for development and innovative initiatives rather than an arena for debate and egotistical propaganda.

Because of that, many opportunities to turn markets and economies into foundations for close networking among Arab League members in a model like the European Union have been lost.

Lost also were opportunities to build on joint investment projects and transform them into strategic alliances like what is happening in the African Union or to jump on the opportunities for sharing knowledge and technological capabilities and transforming them into core elements for cooperation as is happening in Asian countries.

Most Arab countries are looking for alternative spaces other than those available within Arab geography. The Mediterranean subregion is seeking partnerships with the European Union, while the African subspace is seeking agreements with Asian economic players and the Caspian and Eurasian subregions are seeking cooperation with the major economic powers. Overall, Arab capitals have divorced their connections based on Arab geography in favour of other geographical connections.

A deeper dive into the causes of the slump in Arab cooperation reveals that control of one Arab capital over the Arab League’s General Secretariat, its headquarters and part of the other regional structures and turning the matter into a congruence between that capital and the Arab joint action is not the wise way to proceed.

The reason being that the geographical location of the league’s headquarters does have a great influence on the league’s approaches to the burning Arab issues and does limit the right and the duty of the Arab League General Secretariat to stand at an equal distance from all Arab capitals and axes.

So, given this heavy heritage, what else can be expected of the Tunis summit and of the Tunisian diplomacy? The fact remains that even if Tunisian authorities wish to do something about the league’s work, they will not be able to achieve much given the absence of any preparation work for a complete overhaul of the league.

Tunisian diplomacy has a reputation for avoiding frontal interference, for respecting the league members’ sovereign rights of decision and for maintaining a safe distance from all political and strategic minefields.

The most that the Tunis summit can achieve is preventing the existing problems from escalating and avoiding the summit being used for political posturing and issuing Arab resolutions on the Palestinian cause and Syrian sovereignty that have no chance of being implemented.

It cannot be expected that Tunisia will achieve what other more influential capitals failed to do or to resolve regional crises that regional and international mediation efforts have failed to solve.