The Arab Summit Is Distinguished by the Prominence of Its Absentees

The two-day 18th Arab League Summit opening in Khartoum Tuesday, March 28, looks like being a semi-washout. Eight rulers announced their non-attendance including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos.
The Arab foreign ministers who laid out the agenda and drafted final resolutions agreed on one issue: deep resentment of the US-Iranian dialogue on Iran. The two powers had no business discussing Iraq directly without co-opting a representative Arab voice, they declared. Even Iraq’s Kurdish foreign minister demanded more Arab involvement in helping to stabilize Iraq.
The collective absenteeism is explained by debkafile‘s Middle East sources by weakened Arab League leverage in five pressing issues and the summit’s location:
1. Khartoum is way off the beaten track and hardly the safest place in the region for an Arab ruler. Some have unfortunate associations with the Sudanese capital. The Saudi king will recall that Osama bin Laden used Sudan as his home base in the 1990s; to this day, al Qaeda cells fugitives with Saudi links are hiding there. President Mubarak is unlikely to forget that the most serious assassination attempt launched against him emanated from Khartoum in 1995, although its was staged in Addis Ababa.
2. No Arab leader feels comfortable associating publicly with Sudan’s government as long as the Darfur conflict rages. The genocidal war waged by Arab tribes and appalling humanitarian conditions have left more than a quarter of a million dead and 2.5 million homeless. This war has now spread to southern Chad. According to debkafile‘s sources, Chad army units in the affected regions are melting away under the onslaught of tribal raiders coming in from Sudan and overrunning the territory. The general Arab hands-off attitude was expressed in a lukewarm draft resolution presented to the summit, which falls short of Sudan’s demand for support in rejecting outright the deployment of international peacekeepers, as approved by the UN Security Council last Friday, in place of the 7,000-strong African Union force.
The Darfur-Chad issue affects three interested parties:
Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who has sent official military delegations to N’Djamena to voice concern about the threat to its interests, but whose real mission was to seize control of Chad’s natural resources of oil and uranium.
Israel, which has sent Chad’s rulers military and intelligence aid to support their effort to retain independent control of those resources, especially the uranium mines, against inroads by Libyan and other Arab forces.
Wedged between them is France. French companies hold mining and development concessions for Chad’s mineral resources. Its uranium deposits are France’s main reserves for its nuclear industry and force de frappe. Fellow Arab rulers shy away from these disputes. They all have enough troubles on their plates without Darfur and Chad, to mention only Iraq, Lebanon, and the emergent Palestinian Hamas.
3. On Iraq, Arab leaders had hoped that the three major parliamentary blocs elected three months ago – Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis – would finally getting their act together and form a national unity government in Baghdad in time for the Khartoum summit. This would have enabled the meeting to collectively support the new administration and endorse the political process the Americans are promoting in Iraq. But with government negotiations still up in the air, and no real influence among any of those blocs, the participants are left without a policy option.
4. The Lebanese question is similarly unsettled. Here, too, the heads of the Arab world had hoped for the problematic pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud to be gone by this time. But he lingers on in the presidential palace in Beirut, propped up by Syrian president Bashar Assad who continues to meddle in Lebanese affairs. Lebanon therefore is stuck in a time warp, leaving the Arab summit no clear path of action.
5. Hamas’s rise to power in the Palestinian Authority has caused as much discomfiture to Arab rulers as the Iraq and Lebanese crises. The summit proposes to affirm a draft pledge of $50 m per month for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. The Hamas government is due to be confirmed by the legislative council Monday, March 27. At the same time, most Arab leaders were secretly relieved that it would be too late for an elected Hamas official to join the Palestinian delegation. Saudi king Abdullah, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and North African rulers were therefore easily persuaded by Bush officials to withhold an invitation to the summit from Hamas.
Arab summit resolutions must be unanimous to take effect. No Arab ruler relishes the thought that firebrands like Hamas’s Khalid Meshaal, Mussa Abu Marzuk and Mahmoud a-Zahar, the incoming Palestinian foreign minister, would have held the power to veto Khartoum’s resolutions.
Unlike the more thorny issues, endorsement of the internationally-sponsored road map peace plan, is plain sailing for the Arab summit, and so is rejection of Ehud Olmert’s plan to determine Israeli’s borders unilaterally while ostracizing a Hamas-led Palestinian government.
For lack of leverage on all the prime issues confronting the Arab world, the ill-attended Arab summit can do little but stand by and watch while others make the running.

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