Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2007
Issue No. 838
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The hidden picture

The official Arab League summit photo from Riyadh reveals little about underlying Arab differences and contentions, Dina Ezzat reports

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King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz , (right) talks with President Hosni Mubarak after his arrival in Riyadh

Taking the initiative

Gaddafi strikes again

The Arab summit is safely over. The Riyadh declaration heralded to the Arab people consensual Arab resolutions that cover everything from the chronic Arab-Israeli struggle to future arrangements for collective Arab security and the improvement of the quality of education across the 22 member states of the Arab League. But beyond the glossy collective photo of smiling Arab leaders and a grinning Arab League secretary- general there lies volumes of bitter Arab disagreements that contrary to official statements made in Riyadh this week were never properly discussed, if even approached.

"This was basically a summit where everybody, including the host country, agreed that differences should be left behind at the Arab capitals," commented one Arab diplomat who requested anonymity. According to this diplomat, who participated in all preparatory meetings leading up to the summit and took part in a considerable part of the deliberations of the leaders, nobody had any interest in stirring problems. "It is as if an illicit agreement was concluded that no delegation [or for that matter head of delegation] would start any discussion or make any remarks, no matter how consequential, that could lead in any crisis or confrontation," the source said.

The diplomat added that it was in that spirit that Saudi Arabia was more or less relieved to learn that Libya would not participate in the summit. No serious pressure was put on Tripoli to send an envoy in order to avoid having a showdown between the Libyan delegation and that of the host state in view of sour relations between Riyadh and Tripoli since a 2003 quarrel between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (then crown prince) and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi over the presence of foreign troops in the Arab region on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq.

Several Arab diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said that it would have been better if the summit had been held in Egypt because there would not have been the same level of pressure exercised on Arab delegations by Saudi Arabia -- who would still have chaired the summit -- to avoid all crisis situations perceived as "incompatible" with the hospitality of Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines King Abdullah.

So while Arab officials, including Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa, were bragging over the fairly smooth sailing administration of the Riyadh meetings, Arab diplomats were in concert telling Al-Ahram Weekly that crucial matters were either averted or only superficially approached. "Nobody wanted to rock the boat," one source said.

The Iraq file was an obvious example. Despite the high level presence of Iraqi officials President Jalal Talbani, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi issue was mostly discussed in the corridor. The resolution adopted by the summit is basically the one that was passed by Arab foreign ministers in Cairo earlier this month when the Arab League Council of Foreign Ministers convened for its regular spring session.

The resolution reiterated the obvious: Iraq's territorial unity and integrity should be maintained; no interference in Iraq's internal affairs should be permitted or tolerated; a mélange of security and political elements are necessary to stabilise the situation; ethnic-based violence needs to be eliminated through an end to ethnic bias, with this being mostly the responsibility of the Iraqi government of Shia Al-Maliki, whose performance is subject to much quiet criticism on the part of many Arab capitals, mostly Sunni. Sources say that Arab officials shared their concerns more openly with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rather than during the conference.

"Even when the Iraqi delegation requested that the summit welcome the outcome of the Baghdad meeting that was held earlier this month in the Iraqi capital (with the participation of the US, Egypt and the neighbours of Iraq) and that produced only a press release, everybody decided to agree just to avoid the conversation," one source told the Weekly.

Indeed, the only debate extant over the Iraq issue was expectedly prompted by the Syrian delegation during the preparatory meetings to the summit. The Iraqi delegation wanted the summit to adopt a resolution that proposes the establishment of a judiciary body that should be in charge of deciding who was, and who was not, a good Baathist so as to compile a list of potential re-incorporated Baathists as part of an attempted, but reluctant, endeavour on part of Al-Maliki to curb the violent anger of abandoned Baathist cadres.

"The language proposed by the Iraqi delegation presumed that all Baathists were guilty until proven innocent. This goes against the natural way of looking at things. Indeed, it contradicts the fact that most Iraqis under the toppled regime of Saddam Hussein were recruited within the [official] Baath Party," commented a senior Syrian delegate who asked for his name to be withheld. And according to sources, in order to please the Saudi host, the Iraqi delegation succumbed. "If this issue was brought up in Cairo it could have taken at least two hours of discussion between the Syrian and Iraqi delegations," an Arab diplomat said ironically.

Reconciliation among the many quarrelling Arab countries was only a slogan for the summit to make banners and posters of. In substance little was done to achieve this much-needed outcome. Given that only Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi who has disputes with the Saudi host was absent, reconciliation was moot. "Standing next to one another and smiling to the cameras for a couple of minutes and going home to start orchestrating conflicting policies is not really reconciliation," argued one diplomat.

Syria was somewhat an exception. For many it was a good sign to observe the arrival at Riyadh airport of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for the first visit to his Saudi counterpart after a fiery speech wherein Al-Assad suggested that most Arab leaders were simply "half men". Al-Assad was already in conflict with Abdullah over the alleged involvement of Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Egyptian sources say that with the interference of President Hosni Mubarak, Al-Assad and Abdullah attempted to mend fences but at the end of the day it was a cold reconciliation overshadowed by much scepticism.

Even the Iranian nuclear file and the potential of a US strike against Iranian facilities, with its many consequential implications on Arab countries, was not subject to a resolution since this was not thought to be an issue of agreement between most of the Arab Gulf countries who have a near phobic fear of a potential military conflagration on the one hand and other Arab states, especially Syria and a segment of the Lebanese delegation, who believe that the emphasis should be on Israel's existing, unregulated and un-safeguarded nuclear arsenal estimated to be close to 200 warheads on the other.

A resolution, however, was adopted to set up an Arab radiation monitoring system that should, among other things, keep an eye on the side effects of nuclear radiation leaked from Israel's ageing Dimona reactor.

One exception to the "blur it up" approach adopted by the Riyadh summit was the issue of Darfur, which was subject to discussion in a limited meeting that brought together the secretary-generals of the UN and the Arab League along with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and King Abdullah. Support for Somalia was also subject to adequate discussion. And so were issues related to socio-economic cooperation, support to the new Palestinian national unity government, and the right of Syria to retrieve the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.

Arab League Secretary-General Moussa said that the shortly to be effected operations of the newly established Arab Council for Peace and Security would help attend to many regional Arab problems. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faissal said that more efforts would be exerted to handle Arab problems within the Arab framework and away from increasingly aggressive foreign intervention. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said that Arab countries are learning how to better handle their differences. However, nobody said anything about the fact that the Lebanese delegation arrived in two planes and that one part of the delegation was not talking to the other and was in fact opposed to the proposals made by the other.

Efforts to end the close to five-month internal political standoff in Lebanon failed prior to the summit. Entering into the summit hall, pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud escorted by resigned Shia Foreign Minister Fawzy Saloukh shrugged off anti-Syrian and Saudi- supported Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora and his acting Foreign Minister Tarek Mitri. And while the first group was asking for the elimination of any reference to the "government of Lebanon" from draft resolutions presented to the summit, Al-Siniora insisted the phrase be included as the right of the Lebanese people who elected his government and who were forced to live with a Syrian-imposed extension of the tenure of Lahoud. Between the two groups, Moussa was endlessly, but not very successfully, trying to mediate to contain any crisis that might embarrass the Saudi host.

"We want to avoid having internal Lebanese problems reflect over the summit," Al-Faissal said.

Moussa's Chief of Cabinet Hesham Youssef argued that the summit did not aim to resolve all differences but attempted to contain as many as possible. However, it was not clear whether the sedatives offered in the summit could cure the many ailments assailing the Arab world. Indeed, it was only in joking that Al-Faissal, during a press conference at the conclusion of a very brief foreign ministers meeting Monday, said that the Riyadh summit would prove that, "Arabs are one nation with a historic message."

This phrasing was one of the historic quotes of the heyday of pan-Arabism during the rule of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser whose ambitious scheme of Arab unity was shattered by Israeli victory in the war of 1967 and the consequent weakening of Egypt's leadership across the Arab world.

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