Serious challenges for Arab leaders in Amman
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.”