Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Calm in Nouakchott

While the Nouakchott Arab Summit passed almost without comment, and with little Arab commitment, Arab crises will continue to lay pressure for coordinated responses, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

I am not sure whether the calm that prevailed in the Arab Summit in Nouakchott was proof of success or failure. Arab summits have been known to occasion many types of climates apart from calm and tranquillity. This time the summit came and went almost unnoticed.

Generally, there always had to be some kind of tension, whether due to some issue between two or more Arab countries, a dispute over the peace process and the solution to the Palestinian cause, speculations over who may or may not attend, or the inevitable presence of histrionic figures such as Gaddafi who made Arab summits a spectacle to be seen not for their historical value but for their entertainment value.

Not even Morocco’s refusal to host the summit this year was sufficient to inspire the enthusiasm of the media and the press. Perhaps this is because the reason Rabat cited was logical and possibly even praiseworthy. Rabat was not ready to host a summit that would not be serious and would not adopt binding resolutions that would be implemented. The problem here is that Morocco is very familiar with the nature of Arab summits. It has a permanent seat in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and is responsible there for the question of Jerusalem. Morocco is also as aware as others that Arab League resolutions are not necessarily implementable. They are often merely an expression of good intentions, but in the case of important decisions, studies have shown that they are always unfeasible, so they do not get implemented.

So this begs the question as to why Morocco, with all its political weight and influence and experience with Arab summits, did not step in to save the summit from the calm that overwhelmed it. Surely it could have asked the new Arab League secretary-general to discuss how to inject some vitality into that important event. Or it could have invited a group of Arab politicians and intellectuals to deliberate, away from the glare of the media, the state of the Arab League and to devise an agenda commensurate with “an Arab nation with an eternal message”, as the rhetoric went in times past. But instead, Morocco decided to drop the whole subject, as if it were a ball of flame, and toss it back to the Arab League. This was when Mauritania stepped forward and took up the challenge. Simply by hosting the summit, Nouakchott gained. It had never hosted one before and in doing so it set a historic precedent.

Still, the calm in Nouakchott was deafening. Perhaps this had to do with the nature of the inhabitants of the Mauritanian capital. But more likely it was because the majority of Arab leaders and heads of states did not show up. The agenda was familiar and the outputs were predictable; no more than a day would be needed to adopt the required resolutions. Evidently, some found the calm so stressful that it affected their health. My friend, Minister Anwar Gargash, had to be taken to hospital for high blood pressure. I wish him a speedy recovery.

In all events, participants had little else to do but to take a look at the league’s annual agenda. Since those who did attend did not stay long, it is highly unlikely that there were any consultations on the issues of concern in the Arab world, from the collapsed states and the states suffering the fallout from collapsed states to the war against terrorism and the consequent foreign interventions in various Arab territories. No shadows of refugees, displaced persons and dead or wounded reared their heads during the proceedings. Old files were sufficient to produce resolutions: in support of the Arab-Israeli peace initiatives, in support of the UAE on the islands question, against Iranian intervention in Arab domestic affairs. In short, the resolutions reconfirmed everything that was resolved before. Anything new will have to wait for another Arab summit.

So, in a sense, Mauritania succeeded in managing the first Arab summit it organised. It is sufficient that the Arab League, which is still a house for the Arabs, was able to hold its summit without producing new cracks in that edifice. I imagine that my friend Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit had hoped for more, but that his political and diplomatic astuteness led him to realise that the Arabs’ house was under enormous strains. The challenges did not begin with the Arab Spring, but that season marked a qualitative shift in the history of this region. During the Arab economic summit that was held in Sharm El-Sheikh at the outset of 2011, the news coming from Tunisia was portentous. I was present at that summit and I recall the climate of suspense. Still, in spite of the apparent calm from Cairo, the Arab League secretary-general at the time, Amr Moussa, sounded a warning of what was to come. It came anyway.

The new secretary-general will probably have his real work cut out for him after the Nouakchott Summit ends, because he had nothing to do with the preparations for that summit which he was just in charge of. But now he has a whole year to prepare for the next summit and he has some difficult questions to answer as he proceeds. These questions are not about what he wants for the Arab League, but what the Arab states want for their league. That is the starting point on which to build. It could be that Arab states want the league to be no more than an outlet to express their interests. If that is the starting point, then it might be the beginning of a road to success. In international relations, discussion of explicit interests is the substance out of which politicians and diplomats can formulate general positions. The resources at the disposal of the secretary-general are not great. But few as they are, they are sufficient for the purposes of clarifying divergent interests and finding common ground between them.

When it can be seen that positions overlap and intersect, then it is useful for the permanent delegates to sit down and talk, develop ideas and create secondary and tertiary channels and tracks; in short, to stimulate effective political and diplomatic dialogue on crucial issues.

Can the Arab League play a role in the series of negotiations currently in progress regarding Syria, Yemen and Libya? The answer is yes. It requires formulating a common Arab stance over a slow and gentle burner. I have previously aired ideas regarding how Arab governments might handle discussion of subjects regarding development, culture and thought, or how they could encourage research centres and universities to think together and pool ideas. However, questions of higher policy will press on the secretary- general, not so much from Arab governments as from Arab public opinion which, when feeling cornered, turns to the Arab League either in search of a solution or opinion or to curse it because it is unable to curse other parties.

In spite of everything, the Nouakchott round will probably be the easiest summit that Abul-Gheit has to deal with, and not just the calmest. A difficult road lays ahead for him, not just because of the many volatile Arab crises or because of the innumerable dead and wounded and unquantifiable bloodshed caused by these crises, but also because they show no sign of abating. In fact, most likely they will invite foreign armies that ally or conflict with each other on the ground, in the air and in the corridors of power. Those who believe that the Arabs have already endured their most gruelling days may be surprised to find worse to come.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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