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Sunday, 13 June 2021

INTERVIEW: Arab League fears serious repercussions of COVID-19 on member states, says Assistant Secretary-General Zaki

Dina Ezzat , Monday 20 Apr 2020
Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki

Before the advent of Ramadan on Friday, the secretariat of the Arab League is expecting to have received comments from member states on two reports it had compiled on the possible socio-economic outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic on Arab societies.

“We took a thourough look at the situation to assess the immediate impact of this pandemic on Arab societies; the impact on health systems and also on the wider socio-economic scale,” said Chief-of-Staff and Assistant to the Arab League Secretary-General Hossam Zaki.

The reports, Zaki told Ahram Online in a telephone interview, are not just detailing the impact of the pandemic but are also proposing a set of measures that should be taken on the collective level to help Arab states recover from the consequences.

“These measures should help support and improve Arab health capacities and aid in the recovery from the socio-economic impacts that are likely to go on for a while,” Zaki said.

The council of Arab health ministers had met at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo in February before the pandemic had spread aggressively throughout the region and has not met since.

Several Arab countries, including Egypt, had presented the UN General Assembly with a number of proposals to step up international cooperation to help developing countries, including Arab states, to withstand the socio-economic challenges imposed by the pandemic.

According to Zaki, these reports are one part of the work the secretariat has been doing with regards to the impact of the coronavirus on Arab countries.

“We have been carefully observing the regional political impacts too and we do have some serious worries,” Zaki said.

A possible Israeli move to annex Palestinian territories or to expand the construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land is a top concern for the pan-Arab organisation, he said.

Last week, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboulgheit shared his concerns on the matter with UN and other world officials.

Aboulgheit’s messages to the international officials, Zaki said, stressed the need for the international community to act promptly to keep Israel from moving towards any annexation moves.

“Some in Israel likely think that the world is too preoccupied with the coronavirus situation and that this might be the best time to move towards annexation of occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

The pan-Arab organisation, he added, will continue to bring world attention to this issue because if Israel makes the wrong move things could really get out of hand.

In the absence of a viable political process that could lead to a settlement of the Palestinian question, Zaki said, the last thing the Palestinians need is to be faced with further Israeli provocations.

Meanwhile, Zaki said, there seems to be no new avenues for the possible resumption of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis “yet.”

“Our position on the offer that was made by [US] President Donald Trump for a final settlement to [the Palestinian-Israeli struggle] remains the same, and clearly the US and the rest of the world are currently too preoccupied now with the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The secretariat of the Arab League had issued an apprehensive response to an offer that was put forward by Trump a few months back which was seen as totally unacceptable by both the Palestinian Authority and its opposition in the resistance Islamic camp – Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Since then, Israel has been weighing to annex the Palestinian territories that were assigned to it by virtue of the Trump plan but was cautioned against the move by the US, which said that these territories should go to Israel upon the final settlement.

Meanwhile, Zaki said that the Arab League is “also very worried about the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian refugee camps in view of the threat of the coronavirus to societies with limited health capacities and challenged capacities of UNRWA”.

The Palestinian Authority has so far registered over 320 cases of infection in the Palestinian territories and 115 cases in East Jerusalem.

The Authority has been warning about a possible devastating impact on its frail health system, which cannot stand up to the challenge of containing the spread of the infection.

Zaki said that the pan-Arab organisation has been calling on relevant international organisations to reach out to the Palestinian Authority on this matter.

“Of course, we don’t talk to Israel, but we have been talking to all parties and organisations and we have been urging them. We are aware that there are serious economic concerns now for many donors, but we are asking for some essential help to be extended,” he said.

Yemen, Zaki said, is another Arab country of equal concern to the Arab organisation, given the country’s lack of capabilities to manage the epidemic.

So far, Yemen has recorded only one case of COVID-19, but international health sources say this is due to the Yemeni health system’s inability to conduct tests.

Both Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboulgheit and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been repeatedly calling for a total ceasefire in the country’s five-year-long war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition announced its consent to observe a ceasefire, and the UN, several Arab countries and the Arab League have praised the move.

“We think that this is a very important move, for a variety of reasons notably the current health situation in Yemen,” Zaki said. “We hope that the [Houthis] respond by engaging in the ceasefire in order to allow the country to put its broken pieces together to face up to the pandemic.”

Zaki added that the Arab League has been warning of the possible devastating impact of COVID-19 on Arab societies that are facing civil wars and instability, as in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

Zaki said that there has to be a more effective effort to pursue a ceasefire in all spots of turmoil, and argued that the UN missions on Libya and Syria should be more engaged in promoting ceasefire in both places.

This said, Zaki denied that the pan-Arab organisation was involved in blocking the nomination of prominent Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra as chief of the UN mission to Libya (UNSMIL).

“Totally untrue.. Mr. Lamamra is a superb diplomat with great experience.. But the Arab League was never formally informed that his name was up for nomination to be the envoy of the UN secretary-general to Libya,” Zaki said.

Last month, Ghassan Salame, a prominent Lebanese diplomat and intellectual, resigned from his two-year-held post of the UN Envoy to Libya.

The job is currently held by Salame’s trusted assistant, American Stephanie Williams, pending an agreement between the influential countries and Libyan parties on a possible new envoy.

Some Arab and European diplomatic sources had suggested a preference on the side of Guterres to nominate an African diplomat for the job.

“We are aware that the issue is being examined despite the fact the world is very consumed now with the battle against the pandemic and our simple and basic position is that the new envoy should be an Arab,” Zaki said.

“Libya is a very complicated story, and going through the minute details of the conflict and managing to build confidence with the parties is not something that could be done without a native speaker’s command of the Arabic language,” Zaki argued. “Nobody should want to compound the difficulties of managing this very layered issue by throwing in translation issues that could often be a make-or-break factor.”

Zaki said that the developments in Palestine, Yemen and Libya will be on the agenda of the Arab summit for 2020 when it convenes.

The summit regularly meets at the end of March every year. It is hosted by the member states of the Arab organisation in alphabetical rotation.

Algeria is the due host of the 2020 summit. However, in February, it requested a few months delay.

Most informed Arab diplomats have said that Algeria’s wish for a delay is related to the internal political situation in the country, which has been going through a very tense and slow change of regime.

However, some have argued that Algeria had also wished to use the extra time to allow for the return of Syria to the meetings of the Arab organisation.

At the end of 2011, the Arab League foreign ministers decided to suspend the participation of Syria in the meetings of the Arab organisation to protest a very brutal response by the Syrian regime to pro-democracy peaceful protests.

Over the past nine years so much has changed, and the peaceful protests were militarised and evolved into a terrifying civil war that has prompted one of the worst refugee crises in the world for a century.

During the past couple of years, several Arab capitals have taken a number of unilateral decisions to re-engage Syria.

Algeria has traditional close relations with Syria and had been arguing, before the regime change it went through in 2019, for the need to bring Syria back into the meetings of the Arab League.

According to Zaki, however, this issue is “not at all an easy matter, due to many considerations.”

“So many developments have taken place since 2011, this is true; but it is also true that the Syrian regime is now involved in very intense and complicated relations with Iran, which is perceived as a threat to several Arab countries,” Zaki said.

Iranian officials have been openly bragging about their direct, on-the-ground influence in several Arab states, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

“Now there are serious questions that the Syrian regime needs to address before we could seriously speak about its re-integration in the Arab League; its relationship with Iran is certainly one of these questions,” Zaki said.

He added that another concern is the willingness of the Syrian regime to engage in constructive political talks with the non-militant opposition that could lead to a political breakthrough to allow for the beginning of an end to the “huge humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees.”

Obviously, Zaki said that it would be a stretch to argue today that the participation of Syria, or lack thereof, in the Arab summit is a determining factor to decide the date of the next top Arab congregation.

The readiness of the host state and a lull in the aggressive attack of the pandemic, Zaki said, are the crucial issues now.

Could the Arab summit end up being held online like other world meetings?

“I would not wish to prejudge things; we are currently following the developments of the pandemic. Algeria and the rest of the Arab world are acting to contain the infection rate,” Zaki said.

However, he added, depending on how things go in the next weeks, or maybe few months, the matter will be subject to consultations between the Arab League secretariat and Algeria as well as among other member States.

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