Tunisia counts on ‘diplomatic rationalism’ to shore up Arab solidarity
TUNIS - Tunisia hosted high-ranking officials from across the Arab world for a regional summit March 31 it hoped would rebuild Arab solidarity and strengthen its diplomatic role.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit were among those arriving ahead of the 30th Arab League summit, which sought to address regional crises such as the conflicts in Libya and Yemen and the Palestinian issue
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said the choice of Tunisia as the summit site was not “simply good luck” but reflected “Arab leaders’ deep and full conviction that Tunisia is a welcoming land that embraces all Arabs.”
Strong attendance by Arab leaders, he said, was a “testament that Tunisia has regained its position on the Arab world stage. President Beji Caid Essebsi was eager to visit his brothers in various Arab capitals since he became president,” Jhinaoui said.
The summit occurred amid crises and divisions in the Arab world, exacerbated by mounting tensions with regional rivals Iran, Turkey and Israel.
For Tunisia, hosting the summit is a way to bolster its regional profile and strengthen relations across the Arab world. It also assured visitors that Tunisia is safe as it seeks to draw more of them for its tourism sector, a key earner of foreign currency.
Caid Essebsi said Tunisia’s “moderation and rationalism” allowed it to foster critical dialogue among Arab countries. He said he hoped the summit served as “an impetus for more solidarity and cooperation.”
“We want to bring together the Arabs to advance our common interests and cooperation,” Caid Essebsi said while greeting King Salman on March 28.
Tunisian security services were on their highest level of alert ahead of the summit, deploying extra police and soldiers around the country and increasing security at land and sea borders.
Tunisia’s cities have been largely free of violence since November 2015, when the third of three jihadist attacks killed dozens of people, mostly foreign tourists.
Tunisian diplomats said they want their country to mend rifts between Arab states and forge a consensus on sensitive regional issues, including the threat of Iran and the United States’ recent recognition of the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory.
Tunisia also seeks to lay the groundwork for Syria’s return to the Arab fold, including by allowing it to re-enter the Arab League.
However, the issue with which Tunis is most concerned is the conflict in neighbouring Libya, which has negatively affected its trade balance.
Bilateral trade between Tunisia and Libya was previously at $2 billion per year but it has plunged significantly since Libya devolved into chaos after the NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
Tunisia has hosted numerous diplomatic meetings on Libya and will have another on the sidelines of the summit involving officials from the United Nations, African Union, European Union and Arab League.
“We are one people in two states,” Caid Essebsi said. “Tunisia is suffering the most from the continuing crisis because of the demise of the Libyan state.”
“Tunisia can achieve success especially if it manages to advance the political process in Libya,” former Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ounaies said.
He said Tunisia’s main priorities for the summit included making the Palestinian cause a central Arab issue, sending a message to Syria that “Arabs are with it now” and unifying the Arab world against US President Donald Trump’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“The economic issue must be treated as a priority to give to Arab youth by rebuilding the foundations of modernising industries, technology and education in the Arab world,” Ounaies said.