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Monday, 17 February 2020

Analysis: Arab League foreign ministers' meeting will see strong Saudi influence

According to Arab diplomats, the Saudis are very worried by the continued and inconclusive war they have been waging against the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen which the Saudis consider their immediate backyard

Dina Ezzat , Monday 5 Sep 2016
Saudi FM
File Photo: The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at the Arab foreign ministers meeting to elect a new secretary general of the Arab League in Cairo last March (Photo: AFP)
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On Thursday Arab foreign ministers will meet at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League for a regular session ahead of the UN General Assembly later this month.

Typically, the top diplomats of the Arab states will revise a long list of issues that are permanently on their agenda, supposedly with an eye on boosting relations and common interests.

However, only a few matters will actually get serious attention from the diplomatic delegations.

Facing up to what Riyadh says are Iranian ambitions to expand its influence across the Arab world at the expense of Saudi influence is the top priority, as at the Arab summit that convened late July in the capital of Mauritania.

According to Arab diplomats, the Saudis are very worried by the continued and inconclusive war they have been waging against the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen which the Saudis consider their immediate backyard.

The Saudis are also upset that they have been unable to grant a military or political victory to their allies either in Syria or in Iraq against those supported by Iran in both countries.

On record, Iranian officials have been bragging about their “on-the-ground” presence in these three Arab countries and in Lebanon and about the current and potential influence, both economic and political, they have in several other Arab countries.

“Nothing has changed during the past five weeks since the delayed convocation of the Arab summit; at the time the Saudis were very focused on Iran and today they are still,” commented an Arab League diplomat.

He added that “it is only expected that the resolutions adopted by the Arab foreign ministers on the matter will be almost exactly the same as those that were adopted at the Arab summit.”

Coming second on the agenda, or maybe parallel, is the situation in Syria.

The Arab foreign ministers' meeting will be convening in the wake of an expected deal between the US and Russia on handling the situation in Syria. This potential deal that has been in the works for a few weeks now was almost finalised on Monday and Tuesday during American-Russian meetings on the sidelines of the G20 summit hosted by China this week.

Obviously, the son of the Saudi king, Prince Mohamed Ben Salman, who assumes the role of the second crown prince and minister of defence, had held meetings with participating American and Russian officials to make sure that whatever the deal that Washington and Moscow will cut, it would not come at the expense of the Sunni groups that Riyadh had been supporting, with political and financial means, during their war with the army of the Iran-supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“I think it is upon the arrival of (Saudi Foreign Minister Adel )Al-Jubair that we will know where the Saudis stand on the matter and how much support they would be willing to offer to a Russian-American deal on Syria, if one is reached,” said the same Arab League diplomat.

According to the sources of Ahram Online at the Arab League, the office of the secretary-general of the Arab League had been in touch with Riyadh during the process of preparing the draft resolutions that the foreign ministers are expected to adopt on these two files and also on the resolutions related to the situation in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

“Saudi Arabia is effectively the country with the loudest voice at the Arab League now,” said the same Arab League diplomat. 

He added that this is not just a function of a declining diplomatic presence of the traditionally high-profile diplomacy of Egypt, due to the internal upheaval that the country had experienced during the past five years.

“It is about the many changes that the entire Arab world has been through,” he said; it is about the Arab Spring that turned sour in Syria where the demonstrations calling for democracy ended in a terrifying civil war and about the declining interests that Arab countries have in the Pan-Arab umbrella.

A retired Arab League diplomat however believes that the declining interest in the Arab League and the growing influence of Saudi Arabia “is not new.”

“It has actually been there since the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Gulf Cooperation Council was offering expanded memberships to countries like Jordan and Yemen; at the time we used to think that it was a matter of time before the GCC replaced the Arab League even if the organisation were not dismembered,” he said.

However, he and other diplomats accepted that the declining diplomatic presence of both Egypt and Syria dealt the last blow to any semblance of balance in the pan-Arab organisation.

Arab League diplomats, serving and recently retired, also blame the leadership of former Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi, himself a former minister of foreign affairs, for the augmentation of Gulf influence at the league during the past five years.

In the words of some of those diplomats who had served closely with El-Arabi, the former secretary-general was always willing to facilitate the adoption of the Saudi or Qatari positions - unless it ran firmly counter to the Egyptian position.

“It was really about anything from the language of a resolution on the situation in Iraq to the schedule of ministerial meetings that Nabil El-Arabi would keenly accommodate the Gulf states on,” said another.

The end of the inter-GCC rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago with the demise of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, made El-Arabi’s diplomatic posture easier to fix: whatever the GCC proposed unless Egypt argued otherwise.

The same diplomats say that it was not the “personal choice” of the former secretary-general to bow to the wish of the GCC and especially Saudi Arabia - it was the way things were by the implicit consensus of all Arab countries including Egypt - and of course excluding Syria whose membership has been suspended at the Arab organisation since the heyday of the Arab Spring.

Today, the same diplomats argue, the new Arab League secretary-general, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, is following in the footsteps of his predecessor - “perhaps even faster”.

“But of course, the Arab League is only a reflection of the status quo of the Arab world and in today’s Arab world the voice of the Saudis is the highest and the GCC is in full control of the Arab organisation,” said Mohamed El-Agati, director of ACFA.

El-Agati argues that with Nabil El-Arabi at the helm, the Arab organisation went from the peak glory of the Arab Spring, when the elimination of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was hailed at the main hall of the Arab League by official Arab delegates as they received the representatives of the first post-Qaddafi government, to the demise of the Arab Spring - upon the wish and efforts of the most traditional Arab regimes.

It was this Arab political reality that allowed Abul-Gheit, said El-Agati, to assume his job - given that he had to leave office in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Egypt for his close association with the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.

And this is precisely why, El-Agati added, in one of his very early TV interviews Abul-Gheit labelled the Arab Spring as a conspiracy against the interests of the Arab world.

“There again, the political standing of the secretary-general does have an influence,” said El-Agati.

Nabil El-Arabi had immediately announced his subscription to the Arab Spring and had argued the need for balanced relations between Arabs and Iran, called for a united Arab stand to support the Palestinian cause and believed in the pursuit of good governance.

Aboul-Gheit is not in favour of any of these lines. Beyond opposing the Arab Spring, he has clear announced positions against promoting relations with Iran and some very unsympathetic remarks on the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.

“So all of these positions would be reflected in his political administration; this is not to say that he is the one who decides the policy lines but that his influence on these matters will surely be tainted with his positions,” El-Agati said.

According to El-Agati, the collective failure of the Arab countries to lend adequate support to the Palestinian cause during the past five years, for example, happened not because El-Arabi did not want to support the Palestinian cause but because the Arab countries turned their backs on the issue.

Today, more than before, El-Agati does not expect any serious attention to be paid to the Palestinian cause “because now is not the time to champion the big causes but to indulge further into the ethnic disputes that are inciting more feuds in the Arab world rather than to unite the Arabs behind one cause.”

As such, El-Agati is not anticipating the next Arab foreign ministers' meeting to be any different from the last Arab summit.

“The Arab League is essentially the mirror that reflects the reality; even if you have a very nice mirror , if the reality is not good than there is not much to expect,” he argued.


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