Serious challenges for Arab leaders in Amman

Sunday 26/03/2017
Seeking consensus. Jordanian King Abdullah II (R) meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Amman, earlier this month. (AFP)

Beirut - Deep divisions in the Arab world, stalemates in Syr­ia, Yemen and Libya, the forgotten cause of the Palestinians, the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), expan­sionist policies of Russia, growing regional interference from Turkey and Iran and US President Donald Trump’s unpredictable policies are among the numerous challenges facing Arab leaders at their March 29th summit in Amman.
With such a broad range of chal­lenges, the Arab League summit presents the leaders with another opportunity to set aside their dis­putes and join efforts to prevent their troubled region from further fragmenting. However, Syrian Pres­ident Bashar Assad will have to skip the summit again as he is still con­sidered persona non-grata by most of his Arab foes.
With more failed and failing states and no end in sight for wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the Arab region is open to more violence, chaos and unpredictability. Hosted by Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Am­man for their annual gathering, Arab leaders will need to redefine priorities and reassert themselves as key actors in resolving the re­gion’s many crises.
“We’re having more problems in the Arab world and see more im­passes, more dangerous stalemates in the crises and more failed and failing states from Yemen to Libya with no serious, credible and col­lective Arab approach to address these issues,” a former Arab diplo­mat based in Beirut told The Arab Weekly.
Reconciling Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two pillars of Arab security, is an important starting point. Both countries should take the initiative to developing a working relation­ship and engaging with other Arab countries to establish a realistic ap­proach to regaining Arab influence over political decisions that will guide the region’s future.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid noted that relations between Cairo and Riyadh are “both strategic and his­toric” and that the Amman summit would be a “good opportunity” for the two countries to discuss bilat­eral ties.
“Some Arab countries are keen to bring Cairo and Riyadh closer to­gether. These efforts serve the best interests of the Arab world,” Abu Zeid said.
Assad’s future role in Syria and the two disputed Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, are the main is­sues that have caused tension be­tween Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, strategic imperatives will prompt them to seek rapproche­ment. Neither “can afford to do without each other’s basic coopera­tion and support, particularly given the unprecedented series of domes­tic and regional security challenges facing the Arab world”, wrote Hus­sein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, in January.
The recent announcement by Saudi oil giant Aramco that it would resume oil shipments to Egypt is a sign that tension between Cairo and Riyadh is reducing, according to Gamal Bayoumi, Egypt’s former assistant Foreign minister. “It also means that the two Arab capitals have reached specific understand­ings on sticky files before the two leaders meet in Amman.”
Fighting ISIS or Daesh, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, is as much of a priority as preventing the disintegration of Arab societies into singular identities, which could create an environment conducive to more “Daeshism”. However, that issue should not overshadow the need to address each specific hotspot in the Arab world. Leaders should develop a policy-oriented position on Syria and Iraq and re­think how to approach the situa­tions in Yemen and Libya, accord­ing to the Arab diplomat.
“If the Arabs get their act togeth­er, they could force themselves on the Astana (Syria) talks with new ideas to accompany the transition from a state of war into a state of peace, engage in peace-building and even promising reconstruc­tion,” he said. “Iraq must not be left alone. There must be a compre­hensive (Arab) political initiative to help Iraq achieve an inclusive sys­tem whereby the Sunnis are more engaged politically.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir’s surprise visit to Baghdad in February — the first such visit by a high-level Saudi official since the 2003 US-led invasion — was seen as a “very positive” step that should be followed by similar moves aimed at re-engaging with Iraq, which has been left to succumb to Iran’s influ­ence.
“The Arabs are required to take action to counter regional interfer­ence in Arab affairs, especially from Iran,” Bayoumi said.
But if the Arabs really want to contain and reverse the region’s Pax Iranica trend, they must develop an “approach to make the Iranians and everybody else — friends and foes — feel that there is a credible Arab position and not only verbal decla­rations and resolutions,” the Arab diplomat said.
The Amman summit also pre­sents an opportunity to bring the Palestinian issue back into the spotlight. “If we forgot it, it won’t forget us. It could be another future source of all forms of radicalism,” the diplomat noted.
With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledging to bring up the issue of the “Palestinian state” during his April 3rd meeting with Trump, Arab leaders have an inter­est in putting their weight behind him and demonstrating a unified stand.
“If the Arabs stand united, this unity is enough to shoot down in­tentions by the Trump administra­tion to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. A unified Arab message that this decision will threaten American interests in the region will force Trump to rethink his de­cision,” Bayoumi said.
However, the main challenge for Arab leaders will be to turn their summit speeches into applica­ble strategy and to come up with concrete positions that amount to more than just ink-on-paper.
Otherwise, the diplomat con­cluded: “Everybody will go down the drain one day. It is a matter of time.”