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Rules of Arab engagement: The future of pan-Arabism?

Will next week’s Arab foreign ministers’ meeting mark the end of states paying lip service to pan-Arabism?

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 3 Feb 2021
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It is unlikely that the annual Arab summit, still scheduled for the last week of March, will be held this year.

Algeria is the incoming chair of the Arab League, and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has been overseas for medical treatment for the best part of the last three months. It is not clear that when he is back he will be ready to host Arab leaders. Nor is there any sign that Arab leaders particularly want an Arab summit.

The last summit took place in 2019. The 2020 gathering was scrapped following the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. According to one Arab League source, even after the first wave receded, there was no appetite on the part of Arab leaders to meet either face to face or via a Zoom conference.

The same Arab League source is sceptical about this year’s chances for an Arab summit.

“It is not official yet that it will not convene, but so far it does not seem that it will. We are having an Arab foreign ministers meeting next week, and in early March meetings of the social-economic council are scheduled. Sometime during the first week of March we are also planning to have the regular spring foreign council meeting,” he said.

This year’s Arab summit was supposed to see nominations for the top job at the pan-Arab organisation given Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit’s first five-year term ends in mid-May. Earlier this week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced that Cairo will re-nominate Abul-Gheit, a former foreign minister, for a second term that should last until 2026, ending a bout of fevered speculation over the fate of the organisation.

In the words of one Arab League diplomat: “This means that things will continue to float as they have done for the past five years.”

During that time Arab League diplomats have regularly complained that the Arab League has been systematically marginalised by its members.

In the summer of 2017, when Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain decided to impose a boycott on Qatar, the Arab League was not party to the decision. No Arab League mediation was offered to resolve the problem and earlier this year, when the four countries did decide to end the boycott, once again the Arab organisation was not involved.

In the view of Arab diplomats, including at the Arab League, the 2017 boycott was perceived as an “internal” Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issue.

According to former senior diplomats from North Africa and the Levant, the GCC has long viewed the Arab League as a venue to discuss common Arab interests rather than those that pertain to the GCC. This has been the case since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Among the few exceptions when the GCC brought the Arab League on board was its pursuit of support for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The Arab League has, however, continued to “play a role” in supporting Palestinian rights, essentially at the behest of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority. It also played a part, pushed for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in seeking a political deal to help Lebanon escape a new civil war following the 2006 Israel aggression, and worked to promote political talks to end Iraq’s post-invasion civil war.

In the years that followed, the Arab League has served as a venue for the back and forth manoeuvrings of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as they each vied for a bigger regional role and, in the wake of the Arab Spring, a similar ping-pong between Qatar, which supported the Arab demonstrations, and the UAE, which opposed them.

Following the Arab Spring, the UAE and Saudi Arabia took the lead in reformulating the Arab regime. Under the new dispensation, say Arab League diplomats, the Arab League became a place for Arab countries to make statements intended for local consumption, mostly about the threats of terrorism and the need to prioritise socio-economic development over democratisation.

According to a former Arab League diplomat, the pan-Arab organisation was never blamed for failing to block the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, or for failing to halt the humanitarian tragedy that is still unfolding in Syria. It is telling, he adds, that the organisation has been heavily criticised for supporting international intervention to end the brutal attacks that Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi launched against democracy protesters in the spring of 2011.

The same diplomats note that no major decision in the past five years, including the Arab-Israeli normalisation scheme jointly introduced in the autumn of 2020 by the Donald Trump administration and the Mohamed bin Zayed-led UAE, was run past the Arab League.

According to a Palestinian Authority source, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas appealed to the Arab organisation to act to halt the normalisation drive, “his request fell on deaf ears at the Arab League.”

“They basically told us that the UAE had threatened to walk out of the Arab League and to stop paying its annual share of the budget if the issue was even discussed,” he said.

Today, it would be hard to name a single member state that expects much of the Arab League. The rule now, in the assessment of several Arab diplomatic sources, is that Arab relations are ordered on a strict basis of non-intervention.

As a concept, they say, non-interventionism is broad enough for the UAE to consider any criticism of its relations with Israel “an intervention”, and to allow Egypt to denounce Al-Jazeera reports on political opposition as the same.

The Arab foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled for 8 February is being held as a result of a joint initiative by Egypt and Jordan who both want to see the Palestinian cause brought back to the table and fear the Gulf-dominated normalisation agenda might deal a final blow to the possibility of Palestinian statehood.

It will also offer an opportunity for Egypt to raise its nomination of Abul-Gheit for a second term in office, and for Arab states to send a message to the new US administration about the one thing they all agree on, that democracy is not a priority.

The Monday meeting will be the first Arab meeting since the end of the Qatar boycott so it is likely to see a lot of rhetoric about the need for Arab countries to steer clear from intervening in each other’s affairs, a euphemism used to signal Qatari support for Islamist groups.

Arab and Cairo-based foreign diplomats agree that the Abraham Accords — the recent spate of normalisation agreements between Arab states and Israel — sounded the death knell to any remaining concept of pan-Arabism. Indeed, one Cairo-based European diplomat asked rhetorically: “Is Ahmed Abul-Gheit going to be the last secretary-general of the Arab League? And will the Arab League be replaced by a Middle East organisation to which Arabs, Israel and maybe Turkey, will be parties?”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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