Annual Arab Summit – a Fading Institution

A shrinking elite of Arab rulers gathered for their delayed annual summit in Tunis Saturday, May 22, amid a shared sense that it might be their last. Out of 22 Arab League members, thirteen were represented by gloomy heads of state and three by prime ministers. The others sent junior representatives instead of attending for what used to be a striking demonstration of unity and strength by a powerful world bloc.
Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi stayed half an hour into the opening session, then got up and left. He thus showed his opinion of the occasion that was grandly billed as a show of regional unity on the occupation of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political reform in the Arab world.
The Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah was represented by his foreign minister, Prince Saud al- Faisal, while the United Arab Emirates left it to Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al Sharqi, ruler of the tiniest UAE principality of Fujairah, to speak in their name. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah put in a polite appearance at the opening but then claimed pressing business prevented their staying to the end on Sunday. Syrian ruler Bashar Assad agreed to come only after a special resolution was drafted denouncing the United States sanctions newly imposed against his country.
The Tunis conference was postponed from March when Arab leaders failed to agree on a common formula on US demands for democratic reforms in their countries. This time, the foreign ministers managed by Friday night to agree on a set of bland resolutions for approval: on the Middle East conflict, the murder of all civilians is denounced (Yasser Arafat’s formula for saying nothing) while terrorism is condemned only in reference to “Israeli practices against Palestinians.” The United States is called upon to end its occupation of Iraq and give the United Nations an active role in rebuilding institutions. The summit endorses democracy and human rights – but only as concepts. None of the Arab regimes will commit to any genuine reforms or the sharing of their authority. The only harsh words expected will condemn “the immoral and inhumane practices and crimes of the coalition forces,” and call for the trial of all those responsible, not just the US guards at Abu Ghraib.
The Kuwaiti daily al-Seyassah wrote Saturday “The Arab leaders…will issue… a declaration… that will not contain a single useful sentence.”
debkafile‘s Arab affairs sources reveal that the Arab League’s most divisive factor is not external; it is the persona of its secretary general Amr Moussa. The Saudis and most Gulf rulers deeply resent his policies on four counts:
1. They question the custom of always filling the post of Arab League secretary with an Egyptian and maintain that no law says it must always be so.
2. They find untenable and unrealistic the line he dictates for the entire Arab bloc of total opposition to the American role and policies in Iraq.
3. They object the way he is handling negotiations with Tehran on the disputed Persian Gulf islands of Abu Mussa and the two Tumbs, accusing him of conceding too much to Iran for the sake of a compromise instead of fighting for the Arab emirates’ claim. His negotiating tactics, they say, will leave Tehran in full control of the strategic islands.
4. As CEO of the Arab League, he is accused of handing out the plummiest jobs to old-timer Nasserists, leftovers from the pan-Arab socialist regime that dominated the Arab world in the early 1960s. These functionaries are regarded by many Arab rulers as completely out of touch with the real international world of today.
Mubarak is aware of how his peers feel about Moussa, his former foreign minister, but refuses to fire him – even at the cost of seriously vitiating the Arab League as a potent international force. Rather than confront the Egyptian ruler on this issue, key Arab rulers elected to stay away from the Tunis summit.

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