There have been calls for the Fifth Arab-African Summit, to be held in Saudi Arabia in 2019, to intensify coordination, enhance cooperation and give new impetus to Arab-African relations.
A number of factors are seen as catalysts for the success of the Arab-African Summit and the development of Arab-African cooperation, including Egypt’s presidency of the African Union (AU) and its promising agenda that puts boosting Arab-African ties at the top of its priorities and Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the next summit meeting.
Saudi Arabia is an Arab state that has an increasing interest in African affairs, as has been reflected in the Saudi sponsorship of the Jeddah Accord for Ethiopian-Eritrean Reconciliation.
Other factors include the increasing interest of a number of Arab non-African countries, such as the UAE, and the successful record of previous Arab-African summits, meaning that the fifth summit will not start from scratch, but has positive precedents such as the Al-Sabah Initiative to finance African development and infrastructure projects.
The African states also generally support the Palestinian cause. This was embodied in the rejection by the chair of the African Union Commission of the US administration’s decision last year to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The same rejection was adopted by the majority of African governments.
However, the success of the Fifth Arab-African Summit will also depend on overcoming challenges, such as differences between the Arab countries.
Even if Arab-African tensions are not currently obvious, the Arab world is suffering from divisions as some countries insist on pursuing policies that could destabilise their Arab neighbours.
Moreover, a number of key countries in the Arab and African regions, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Nigeria and the Sahel states, face major security and political challenges.
International forces have also been playing a negative role, among them the former colonisers of Africa who regard any Arab-African rapprochement as a threat to their interests.
There is also the role played by a number of Middle Eastern powers including Turkey, Iran and Israel that are eager to play a greater role in Africa at the expense of the Arab countries.
In order to ensure the sustainability of the Arab-African Summit mechanism, the 2019 summit must prioritise finding a suitable formula to activate the recommendations made at the previous meetings.
The first of these was held in Cairo in 1977, and its most important outcome was the 13-article Cairo Declaration supporting the struggle of the peoples of Palestine, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Somalia and the Comoros for freedom and independence.
The second summit was held more than three decades later in October 2010 in the Libyan city of Sirte with the participation of 66 Arab and African countries (members of the Arab League and the African Union).
The world, including the Arab and African regions, had undergone major changes in the period between the first and the second summit meetings, posing challenges that required the reconvening of the Arab-African Summit mechanism.
The second summit focused on the Arab-African Joint Plan of Action for 2011-2016 and issued the Sirte Declaration that dealt with developments in the Palestinian cause and the situations in Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, the UAE and Occupied Golan Heights, among other topics of mutual concern.
On 19 November 2013, the Third Arab-African Summit was held in Kuwait, just as many Arab countries were facing extraordinary political and security issues.
The meeting was attended by 34 heads of state and delegations from 71 Arab and African countries, as well as a number of regional and international organisations.
The summit discussed the possibility of establishing a joint Arab-African Market by linking programmes and projects taking place on the Arab and African levels on a separate basis, in addition to enhancing trade, investment and food security.
A number of political issues were also discussed, and the outcomes of the summit appeared in the Kuwait Declaration.
The Fourth Arab-African Summit was held on 23 November 2016 in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, where it was hosted for the first time by a non-Arab African country.
The third summit meeting to be held within seven years, the event was an important indicator of its regular occurrence, considering the fact that the first and second summit meetings had been held 30 years apart.
The Malabo Summit saw the participation of 17 heads of state of Arab and African countries under the title “Together for Sustainable Development and Economic Cooperation.”
In addition to economic and development issues, the summit discussed ways to combat terrorism and guarantee food security. It adopted decisions to establish a disaster fund and to unify efforts to reduce youth migration across the Arab and African regions.
The Arab-African Summits remain one of the most important mechanisms for enhancing bilateral cooperation between the Arab world and the African continent.
However, in addition to the summit itself, the relationship between the two sides needs more efforts if it is truly to succeed, including expanding diplomatic representation and exchanging visits at the official and popular levels, especially among young people.
This can be done by increasing the number of African students in Arab universities and institutes, as well as by dispatching experts and technicians to African countries and organising cultural, artistic and other events.
There is also an urgent need to adopt a developmental perspective based on expanding the implementation of joint projects and mutual investments as an alternative to grants and donations from outside.
In this regard, the role of financial institutions such as the African Development Bank and the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa is of great importance.
The integration of all these efforts is needed in view of the current challenges facing the Arab world and the African continent posed by the need to develop security and intelligence cooperation in the face of cross-border threats such as terrorism, illegal immigration and human-trafficking.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An Arab-African formula for success