Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Fate of Arab Summit discussed

The delay of the Arab Summit is only too convenient for many, reports Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

This week Morocco announced that it will delay “its right” to host and chair the annual Arab Summit that was scheduled to be held in the last week of March.

The announcement came against a backdrop of Arab consultations that initially indicated a possible short delay — requested by Rabat for what was described as “the overlap of the summit with other international diplomatic events”.

Arab League sources say that they sensed a Moroccan wish to “pass” on the summit for “some obvious reasons”.

The summit comes in the midst of incredibly confused times for the Arab world. The delay is to the liking of several capitals that would rather not expose certain issues to wide debate, they said.

Saudi Arabia, the de facto leading Arab country, is busy with a war in Yemen — which a international humanitarian source said is “almost erasing big parts of Yemen” — with military and political engineering in Syria, and with gearing up a major political coalition against Iran.

Egypt, the current chair of the Arab Summit, is hoping to drop the challenging diplomatic task of proposing a new candidate for the seat of Arab League secretary-general, given that Cairo knows it lacks the clout required to pass keen candidate and former foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit or, for that matter, current Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in the face of increasing tension over Egypt’s de facto monopoly on the post.

Leadership of the pan-Arab organisation was taken by a Tunisian during the decade-long Arab boycott of Egypt following the latter’s unilateral signing of a peace treaty with Israel in the late 1970s.

Egypt is also short of influence to secure another full term for the current secretary-general, Nabil Al-Araby, given that several leading Arab capitals — including Riyadh, whose support has been crucial for Cairo during the past three years — argue that Al-Araby could maintain his job for “another year or two”, pending agreement on the principle of “rotation” of the post proposed at the summit in Algeria over a decade ago.

Egypt is also happy to see the summit delayed pending a growing if tentative international agreement on management of the revolution-turned-war in Syria, spurred with Tuesday’s announcement of a ceasefire accepted by all parties except for the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Nusra Front (a militia supported by Riyadh).

Egyptian official sources note that Egypt doesn’t entirely see eye to eye with Saudi Arabia on the war in Syria. Cairo favours the continued rule of President Bashar Al-Assad, with some inclusion of the “moderate” opposition in a new government. Riyadh, meanwhile, is determined to get rid of Al-Assad.

Egyptian official sources say that what the Saudis propose, in terms of removing Al-Assad, is not compatible with the text and spirit of UN positions on the situation in Syria, “which the Arab League should not depart from,” as one official said. They are hoping that when the summit convenes, the international committee will have reached a roadmap on the dramatic crisis that has left hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced and forced to emigrate.

Egypt is equally glad to drop a meeting where it would have had to take a clear decision on the Saudi wish to assemble “a Sunni army” to face Iran — something that Cairo privately dreads — and on Saudi demands for all but full leadership of an Egyptian proposal for a “united Arab force”, which is also unwelcome to Cairo.

Rabat’s Arab political profile has been low for years. Morocco has attempted to keep political upheaval in the Arab world at a distance and to engage in closer relations with the Mediterranean milieu, in the hopes of later taking membership in the European Union.

“The king of Morocco has been avoiding all Arab gatherings as a matter of principle. It is always his crown prince that is sent to these events, or even the foreign minister,” said an Arab diplomat. “The only exception had to do with events hosted by the Saudis.”

It is out of question for Rabat, according to diplomats, to host a meeting that would cost Riyadh any political inconvenience — not just on Syria or Yemen, but also on its current confrontation with Lebanon over the role of Hizbullah in the Lebanese political scene, and its long list of demands for fundamental changes of the management of the secretariat of the Arab League. These range from closing diplomatic missions of the Arab organisation to changing the quotas of member states in the budget and job shares of the Cairo-based secretariat.

Rabat, the same diplomats add, has not had the easiest rapport with Cairo over the past couple of years, partially due to what it perceived as Egypt’s support for Algeria — against Rabat — on the situation in the Western Sahara, and partially due to the unwillingness of Morocco to forgive an insult made on a private Egyptian TV channel against the Moroccan people over a year ago.

An Egyptian official familiar with talks that a senior Moroccan official had in Cairo last week with Egyptian and Arab League officials over “preparations for the summit” reflected a sense of unease from Rabat’s envoy over the management of the summit handover from Egypt to Morocco.

It was not, however, until late last week that Morocco indicated its wish to move from a short delay of the summit to a longer delay — one that amounts to a decision to drop its alphabetical turn to chair the Arab summit.

The official explanation for the decision, as appeared in statement released by Rabat, was a “lack of convenient circumstances for a productive summit”. But the unofficial reason, which several diplomatic sources confirmed, was the wish of Saudi Arabia to drop the event.

The subsequent announcement of Mauritania, offering to host the summit “a few weeks later, to allow for preparations”, is not really taken as likely by most Arab capitals.

It is not a secret that Nouakchott is short on the logistical means for hosting this event, say Arab diplomats. And it is not a secret, they add, that “for obvious security reasons” most Arab leaders, including the current chair of the Arab summit, might skip the event.

The second in line, according to the alphabetical order, is Yemen. This is obviously not an option.

If the Mauritania scenario fails then there will be two alternatives: one is to skip to Jordan, a choice the Saudis would welcome given Jordanian willingness to support the positions of Riyadh, in political, intelligence and military terms.

Egypt, as the current chair, would not mind this decision either, given the generally good cooperation between Cairo and Amman.

Jordan is open to the option, according to word in the corridors of the Arab League, but it is the “when” that is being discussed.

Alternatively, Egypt, as the seat of the headquarters of the pan-Arab organisation, is also an option. But the summit in this case would go to Sharm El-Sheikh, not Cairo. The question here is who will be the chair: Mauritania or Jordan?

Is it possible for the summit to be dropped this year altogether, due to the many political complications?

“Possible, but not the most likely scenario,” answered an Arab League source.

“This hypothesis is not on the table now. The entire situation is being examined and some time in the next few days or weeks we should have reached a decision,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

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