Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trumping the Arab Summit

Arabs are having their first summit since Donald Trump entered the White House

Sisi and Salman
Sisi and Salman

Arab leaders were scheduled yesterday to end the Arab Summit in Amman with a set of resolutions on key Arab issues, including the Palestinian cause, Iranian influence in the region and the civil wars dominating Syria, Libya and Yemen.

The summit was expected to see one of the highest attendances of Arab heads of state with all Arab leaders announcing their participation except for the Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika and the ruler of Oman Sultan Qabbous. It was also expected to see a flurry of sideline meetings, including one between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi Monarch King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz.

Al-Sisi and Salman have not spoken for months, a result primarily of Saudi dismay at the failure to implement a deal signed on 8 April 2016 by Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Saudi’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman handing sovereignty of the Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh.

According to Arab diplomatic sources, the meeting between Al-Sisi and Salman was likely to begin in the presence of summit host King Abdullah of Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait Abdullah Al-Sabbah, the UAE’s Vice President and Prime Minister Mohamed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Eissa, all of whom have invested diplomatic capital in easing tensions between Cairo and Riyadh. Eissa was in Cairo on Monday for a pre Arab summit visit aimed at concluding arrangements for the Al-Sisi-Salman meeting.

Arab diplomats in Washington say the “real push” behind the attempts at reconciliation have come from the US administration. “The US administration is asking its allies to put aside differences over what Washington perceives as inconsequential matters to secure an alliance of Arab Muslim leaders — which might be joined by Turkey and Israel — to face up to the militant Islamic groups which the US identifies as the number one threat in the region,” said one.

He added that this “unequivocal demand by Washington” had already secured the very unusual visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to Baghdad a few weeks ago, Saudi resumption of payment-friendly oil shipments to Egypt, the suspension of Cairo’s diplomatic flirtation with Iran and a commitment from Cairo to work out a solution to the Tiran and Sanafir conundrum that will “have the consent” of Riyadh even if it is “later rather than sooner”.

“There has been a lot of scepticism in Arab capitals about what Donald Trump is up to except, of course, in Cairo, where Trump’s victory was met with glee, a result of tensions with the Obama administration over issues related to democracy. Now the summit gives an opportunity for each leader, and maybe in some cases groups of leaders, to send the White House a message about what they expect from Washington,” one Arab diplomat said.

Some of these messages will be relayed through the resolutions expected to be adopted by the summit on Wednesday after having been finalised on Monday during the Arab foreign ministers meeting. They will include two — on the need to halt Iranian influence, a key Saudi concern that has prompted close but unannounced Saudi-Israeli consultations throughout the past year, and a commitment to confront terrorism — IS, Al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups — that will be to the White House’s liking.  

The Arab Summit was also expected to see discussions on how far Arab states are willing to go with a tentative US plan to instigate a joint front of Arab and other “like-minded countries” to face up to IS and similar groups, including Boko Haram.

Western diplomats in Cairo and Arab diplomats in Washington say that while there is no final plan, the idea of the front is being discussed and was brought up in Trump’s meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Ali Al-Abadi and with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince bin Salman during their recent visits to Washington.

Lack of clarity on the anti-terror front is likely to be reflected in loose wording in the Amman summit’s resolution concerning the kinds of action member states will commit to in confronting terrorism.

Less to Trump’s taste is the likely Arab Summit resolution on Palestine. Arab leaders are expected to adopt a resolution reiterating their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative which offers normalisation with Israel in return for an end to the occupation of Arab territories captured in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The resolution will please Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who for a year has shrugged off Egyptian-Jordanian appeals for what Egyptian officials say is “a more realistic take” to allow for a “new negotiations process that could actually lead somewhere”.

According to one Egyptian official: “Fifteen years have passed since the Arab Peace Initiative was adopted and so much has changed on the ground, economic fatigue in the wake of five years of political turmoil and a clearly strengthened Israel... We cannot take things backwards and we need to be open to the real potentials that are there.”

According to this diplomat, while ideas that Egypt and Jordan are proposing “and which have the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait among others” are not expected to be included in the text of the Amman Declaration — that, he says, will be as traditional as it gets” — they are “not completely off the table”.

“They will be picked up in discussions on the margins of the summit and during meetings scheduled for the first week of April in Washington between Trump and King Abdullah and President Al-Sisi.”

Al-Sisi is due to meet with Trump on 4 April, Abdullah on 5 April. Abbas is also scheduled to visit Washington though, according to a Palestinian diplomat, he has asked for a slight delay in order to allow for “thorough preparations”.

During a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Washington shortly after his inauguration Trump dismissed Washington’s longstanding commitment to work for a two-state solution. Instead, Trump signalled his willingness to initiate a process of negotiations that could lead to a settlement whereby Palestinians gain a greater degree of autonomy in Gaza and the parts of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, the Amman summit is expected to appeal to Trump not to move forward with his promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The Arab Summit will also provide Arab leaders with an opportunity to try and minimise the differences between them over the future of both Syria and Libya.

Iraq is not expected to fully abandon attempts it made early in March to secure Syria’s return to the organisation which in 2011 suspended Damascus for what it described as crimes against the people of Syria committed by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is likely to try, in cooperation with the Algerian delegation, to secure the support of Libya’s neighbours for the expansion of the political and military prerogatives of the head of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Seraj.

Arab League sources say that on Syria and Libya there is basic agreement on the need for the situation on the ground to be stabilised, though differences persist on the roles to be played by Al-Assad and Al-Seraj. But there is enough consensus, they argue, to serve as a base for cooperation with the Trump administration and other international powers over how to address both countries, “essentially with an eye to eliminating militant groups”.

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