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Wednesday, 20 February 2019

After the Arab Summit

The strategic Arab quartet that emerged between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain needs to be strengthened and expanded as a matter of necessity

Abdel Moneim Said , Thursday 26 Apr 2018
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If there is one lesson to be learned from the recent Arab Summit in Dammam it is that the intricacies and complexities of the international and regional situation compel Arab countries to make close mutual relations a priority in order to promote their national interests.

This does not imply that these countries should isolate themselves from global affairs and the complex relations of world powers with each other and with the Arab world, or from the regional situation with its diverse patterns of hostility or cooperation between non-Arab regional powers and Arab countries.

But, here I will not delve into the complexities of the relations between Arab countries and other countries of the world, especially with the US and Russia which are both so deeply embedded in the Arab region that they can be said to have become regional parties with global interests.

What concerns me, here, is that the talks, speeches and declarations that emerged from the summit embodied a minimum level of Arab consensus and, ultimately, the established common Arab principles regarding the Palestinian cause, the Emirati islands and other issues that participants accord varying degrees of focus from one summit to the next while their commitments to core stances remain unchanged.

The Arab Summit reflects a phenomenon unique to the Arabs. Countries here or there may sympathise, but none fully agrees.

Others may try to outbid the Arabs on some issues, such as Iran when it comes to the Palestinian cause, although the general trend in the world is to underbid.

Whatever the case, no one espouses the same point of view as the Arabs. Others will always disagree to some extent or another.

Practically speaking, we have a regional situation in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have formed a bloc for handling the Syrian crisis.

Iran may exercise a form of mandate over the Syrian regime, while Turkey is hostile to that regime.

But the three powers continue to conduct their affairs concerning Syria in a manner that enables them all to achieve their respective ends.

Russia has obtained a warm water port at Tarsus and a pro-Russian regime in Damascus, at least of the foreseeable future.

Turkey has turned the security situation in northern Syria to its favour and placed the Kurds under constant threat. It has created for itself a depth of territorial control in this region so as to create a buffer zone in Syria.

Iran has penetrated into the Syrian core where its revolutionary militias have joined forces with Hizbullah to create a protection network for the Syrian regime.

In return, Tehran has gained a vantage point from which it can threaten or intimidate Israel.

Also, from a practical standpoint, relations between Russia and the US have entered into a phase that some have likened to the Cold War era.

At the same time, Washington appears to be fluctuating between becoming more involved in Syria and withdrawing its troops from there in the hope that the Arabs assume its tasks.

The space here is insufficient to discuss the situation in greater detail, but suffice it to say that, as we have pointed out previously in this column, the Arabs have only themselves to rely on.

Such an observation is often greeted with a smirk as the Arab record casts a shadow over the possibility of credible inter-Arab strategic cooperation. Still, the pressures are too great to ignore.

There are two courses of action that the Arabs can develop in order to produce a shift in the balances of power in the region in favour of Arab countries.

Firstly, if there is little they can do to promote Arab causes such as the Palestinian cause in the absence of greater efforts to reconcile among factions, there is much they can do in the framework of developing mutual economic and cultural relations.

Expanding the Arab market can protect the Arabs from the protectionist trends in Western nations.

Modern technology helps create a vital Arab cultural space, the potential of which is evident to anyone who observes social networking sites and television and radio audience behaviours.

The second course of action is strategic in nature.

The emergent Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain should be deepened and expanded politically and militarily.

If it is preferable to refuse engagement in military operations the ends and means of which are not defined by the Arabs, they should nevertheless advance a collective Arab stance on the Syrian crisis that advocates an immediate ceasefire between all parties and, more importantly, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syrian territory.

The security of Syria must be resolved internationally.

The international community together with the existing regime should assume the tasks of fighting terrorism and preparing Syrian society for the processes of drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair elections.

The Arab countries could work together with the international community in this international framework.

The same formula could be applied to the resolution of crises in other Arab countries torn by civil war.

The essence of the Arab outlook, in general, is to pursue peace. The Arab Initiative is the key to a solution to the Palestinian cause.

In translation, it means that the Arabs not only have a Palestinian question, but also an Israeli question.

Both can only be solved in a regional framework. 

The initiative not only calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories and the creation of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

It also calls for the establishment of normal relations between all Arab states and the Hebrew state.

At the same time, in order for the Palestinians to establish an independent state they must fulfil the conditions of statehood, foremost among which is that the state must hold an exclusive monopoly on the legitimate means of recourse to force, and that only the government is authorised to take final decisions on war and peace, as opposed to factions and parties, each of which claims for itself a kind of sacred right to dictate the fate of a people.

Israel, for its part, will never be able to achieve peace with all Arab countries until it demonstrates that it is ready to live in peace with its neighbours.

The experience of peace with Egypt and Jordan has not only ended war between Israel and its neighbours, it has opened the doors to economic and security relations that are beneficial to both the Arabs and the Israelis.

Israel, at present, has unprecedented prospects available to it for new and vital cooperation in oil and gas, maritime routes, pipelines and export ports, and other realms of activity.

The strategic Arab quartet has much that it can offer to lend substance and vitality to Arab stances on this region’s crises.

It could have even more to contribute if it expands to include other countries, particularly Jordan.

While it is important that Arab leaders and diplomats sustain regular consultations and communications, and that their governments continue to hold bilateral and multilateral military exercises, concrete action to broaden inter-Arab economic cooperation and to bolster Arab stances on thorny regional questions is of the essence in order to advance the Arab position as a whole.

In other words, summit declarations and closing statements need to be backed up by deeds. Perhaps then the world will listen to us.

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

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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