When Arab leaders posed for a family photograph during their summit meeting in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani refused to stand in the back row and instead moved to join those in the front.
A photograph released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account did not show Al-Sudani posing alongside the rest of the Arab leaders, however, raising eyebrows about the apparent absence of the Iraqi premier from the usual picture.
Earlier, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman greeted Al-Sudani before the start of the summit without the traditional hugs and kisses that he exchanged with other Arab League leaders, including Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who was freshly readmitted to the group’s dynamics.
Though the Saudi Foreign Ministry later published a new picture with Al-Sudani posing shoulder to shoulder with other heads of state, many Iraqis, including members of parliament, voiced their outrage on social media for the apparent forgoing of their leader.
It was not immediately clear what was behind the diplomatic hiccup, but it revealed the fine political line that the Arab nations walk and the delicacy of their ties even when their leaders gathered for what was dubbed as “a unity summit.”
Moreover, the modest outcome of the summit, which skirted concrete action on many of the troublesome issues facing the Arab world, has again demonstrated the inability of the bloc to work effectively to ensure prosperity and peace for its peoples.
Saudi Arabia hosted the annual summit with an ambitious agenda that included regional security, stability, Palestinian-Israel peace, regional conflicts, and economic and cyber-technology challenges. But above all the oil-rich Kingdom sought to showcase the event as a venue for its regional supremacy.
However, the summit concluded with a simple political statement reiterating previous Arab League positions on the ongoing crises in Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Yemen.
On the lingering Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the summit reaffirmed “the centrality of the Palestinian cause” to the Arab countries and stressed the importance of intensifying efforts to achieve a comprehensive and just settlement of the Palestinian issue.
On non-political issues, the summit’s Jeddah Declaration stressed the importance of sustainable development, and the need to build food supply chains, to encourage investment, and to increase water desalination. It also committed League members to continuing the fight against crime and corruption at all levels.
The declaration expressed the leaders’ concerns about the multiple challenges faced by the region, but there was little evidence that they have worked out credible plans to resolve them. In short, the outcome was wearily familiar: the region remains in trouble, but the push to tackle it is falling short of the rhetoric.
The summit was overshadowed by the presence of Al-Assad, who was invited to join it by Saudi Arabia earlier this month. The Syrian president has been ostracised by most of the world since 2011, when his bloody crackdown on a popular uprising sparked one of the region’s most savage civil wars.
Al-Assad’s appearance was expected to add heft and drama to a summit usually seen as a talking shop that is hardly of use in the eyes of many in Arab public opinion. But the surprise appearance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which swiftly sucked attention away from Al-Assad, put the gathering under the world’s spotlight.
Addressing the summit, Zelensky, dressed in his trademark military clothing, urged the attendees to “take an honest look” at Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has prompted much soul-searching in the Arab world but little condemnation of Russia.
“Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here among you who turn a blind eye to those illegal annexations [by Russia],” said Zelensky in an emotional speech demanding support from the Arab leaders, some of them, like Al-Assad, who have maintained strong ties to Russia.
Speaking after the Ukrainian leader, Al-Assad, who had prepared himself to deliver a triumphant speech, rejected the notion that the Arabs have re-embraced Syria by inviting him to the gathering which was dubbed by Saudi media as “Summit of Embrace”.
“Syria is the beating heart of pan-Arabism. He who is the heart cannot be placed in the folds,” he boasted. “What is important is to leave domestic issues to the people while our duty remains to prevent foreign interventions only when requested.”
Regardless of the rhetoric and who got the spotlight at the summit, the event would have been a challenging affair under the best of circumstances, given the wide-ranging crises the Arab region faces.
The run-up to the gathering was dominated by anxiety over developments that are reshaping the Middle East two decades after the US-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein and 12 years after the upheavals triggered by the Arab Spring that toppled several regimes, threatened others, and drove some countries into civil wars.
Most significantly in this perspective, wealthy Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE readily filled the geostrategic vacuum created by the chaos at the expense of traditional regional powerhouses such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
Thanks to their huge financial resources, the Gulf monarchies are seeking to remake the regional political landscape. They are using their economic power, managed by newly expanded sovereign wealth funds, through the deployment of billions of dollars’ worth of investments in the region.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states’ “quiet rise” has given way to more vocal expressions of aspirations towards regional power and a more assertive posture, particularly with regard to leveraging their success to gain regional influence.
The Gulf nations are aspiring to be key players in the larger power game in the region as China and Russia increase their footprints in the Middle East in response to broader geopolitical shifts, notably the diminished role of the US, and weave the region into their global ambitions.
Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to respond to the emerging geopolitical shifts by doubling down on economic cooperation and displaying political and cultural soft power in order to secure a prominent regional role.
After decades of pursuing a foreign policy closely aligned with the US, Saudi Arabia is moving towards a more independent and assertive approach. It has improved ties with Turkey and Qatar and mended ties with regional rival Iran. It has also boasted of its political, economic, and military ties with China and Russia.
Saudi Arabia might view its new policy of détente and last week’s summit as ways to show its newly assertive diplomacy and ambitions to play a regional leadership role. But there are also reasons to believe that despite its economic strength and political clout, it is not clear that the Kingdom can really “dominate” the regional arena.
The new regional order is still taking shape, and it is hard to believe that it can be enforced by one regional heavyweight, no matter what economic potential it possesses. The regional order established by the victorious allies after World War I might not be perfect, but it has been remarkably enduring.
Beyond the headlines from the Jeddah Summit, however, Syria’s readmission to the Arab League does not mean that there is now common ground on how to tackle the crisis in the sharply divided and wrecked nation.
The summit underscored that not every Arab country has been eager to mend ties with Al-Assad. Qatar has said that it will not normalise relations with him, and Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani walked out of the meeting when Al-Assad started his speech at the summit.
When it comes to the growing Saudi rapprochement with Iran, there have been no signs that the Chinese brokered-agreement will make the Islamic Republic change the course of its basic regional policies, including its support for proxies let alone its competition for regional leadership.
As international pressure to make Iran comply with the 2015 nuclear deal with the West eases, Iran may even be closer to weaponising its nuclear programme.
Further complicating the picture is the reality that a new Middle East order is hard to imagine on the ground without Iran, Israel, and Turkey being included in its security structure.
These three powerful countries have always challenged a pan-Arab system and worked to supplant it with their own dynamism. Rise of a new regional order may evoke a tripolar system with Israel, Turkey and Iran at the helm still entertained by many Middle East watchers.
If anything, the Arab summit in Jeddah clearly showed that the region is going back to the status quo by trying to re-establish a “new normal” among its weary nations. Indeed, it revealed that with a new regional order emerging, the Arab League, which is synonymous with the Arab world, is the last rearing up of an entity that is exhausted.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly