Algiers will be at the centre of Arab politics next month as many of the Arab world’s leaders and diplomats gather for an Arab Summit meeting in the North African capital to discuss a wide range of issues and their implications for various policy fields.
The annual gathering, which is meant to be a platform to exchange ideas about inter-Arab politics, is usually held in March. But Algerian officials have planned the summit for 1 November, the anniversary of the start of the country’s war of independence from France in the 1950s.
The timing is reinforcing the view that Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune primarily wants to organise the Arab Summit to boost his regime’s prestige in the neighbourhood and domestic standing as the country remains beset by several political and economic crises and regional disputes.
For sceptics, the summit is just another talking shop that will be marred by divisions and rivalries and can hardly be useful except perhaps in generating favourable headlines in the Algerian government-controlled media.
While the Arab League has said the event will be an example of “Arab consensus,” Algeria has promised it will be an unprecedented grand show to “meet the challenges in both the regional and internationals arenas.”
“It will be a key milestone in the course of joint Arab action,” declared Ramtane Lamamra, Algeria’s foreign minister, who is leading a new wave of diplomacy to cultivate friendship as part of a great regional geopolitical competition.
Neither an agenda for the summit nor a list of attendees has been made public so far, obscuring its larger purpose and raising doubts about the event making a major breakthrough.
The summit was originally due to be held in Algiers in March 2020 but was suspended due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that forced the cancellation of some other major events around the world.
It was rescheduled several times due to disagreements over regional hotspots such as in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen that require the Arabs to work together.
The Arab countries are also divided over the issue of the return of Syria to the Arab League following its suspension in 2011 after the brutal repression of peaceful protests in the country spiralled into a complex Civil War.
Several Arab countries that have been among the fiercest critics of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have been resisting attempts to allow Damascus to take back its seat in the 22-member grouping.
But Syria surprised the Algerian government by showing a lack of interest in regaining its empty seat. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Lamamra that the summit does not need to discuss Syria’s readmission into the organisation.
A special spotlight in Algiers will be on Morocco’s delegation and on whether Moroccan King Mohamed VI will join the stage with other kings, emirs, and presidents of the Arab League nations.
The two neighbouring countries remain entangled in a dispute over the Western Sahara and a larger historical competition for regional influence.
Algeria has long supported the Polisario Front in its struggle against Morocco for control of the Western Sahara and in the simmering 47-year-old conflict. Algeria’s backing has undermined Morocco’s drive to completely bring the Western Sahara under its sovereignty.
In recent months the long-time rivalry between the two nations developed further after Algeria decided unilaterally to sever diplomatic ties with Morocco last summer.
More clouds also remain on the horizon, putting an additional damper on Algerian hopes of ensuring the event’s success. Libya is also likely to be discussed amid divisions over which authorities are to be recognised in this war-torn nation.
At the last Arab League ministerial meeting in September, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri walked away after the foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government of Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah started chairing the session under the League’s rotation system.
Egypt has maintained a mediating role in the Libyan conflict, but Shoukri’s departure was the clearest signal yet of its dissatisfaction with Dbeibah’s government that has also received a vote of no confidence by Libya’s eastern-based parliament.
The parliament has appointed Fathi Bashagha, a politician from western Libya, as prime minister instead of Dbeibah, who has yet to be accepted by the UN and other foreign governments.
For Egypt, the increasing Turkish military intervention in neighbouring Libya is a matter of greater concern. Egypt is also worried about Ankara’s deals with the Tripoli authorities to exploit maritime energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean that overlap with Egypt’s interests.
There is also of course the Palestinian question that for more than 70 years has been at the centre of Arab politics, though the cause has remained subject to political manipulation, regional shifts, and geopolitical realignments.
Over recent months Algeria has trumpeted its intentions to make “the Palestinian cause the axis of the summit” without presenting a roadmap or even offering concrete ideas on how to support the Palestinians.
One idea being circulating is that the Arab leaders will renew their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative launched at a Beirut summit meeting in 2002 and propose peace with Israel if the latter returns land it occupied in 1967.
The Arab countries remain committed to the proposed deal, but Israel has always rejected the idea of trading the Palestinian Occupied Territories for the normalisation of relations with the Arab nations.
The signing of so-called “Abraham Accords” between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE in 2020 and the normalisation of relations by Morocco and Sudan with Israel have been a key turning point in taking the initiative off the table.
To augment the uncertainty weighing over the summit, Tebboune has announced a plan to host the Palestinian factions for discussions with the aim of ending their divisions.
Since 2007 when Hamas and radical Palestinian groups took control of the Gaza Strip, the so-called Palestinian dialogue has reached a point of no return despite assistance given by Egypt.
Like many previous Arab summits, the one in Algiers is expected to descend into another display of rhetoric, with the only attention being focused on who will attend and who is absent.
There will also be a photo-op when the leaders pose for the cameras. Otherwise, the outcome is expected to be the meeting itself, which seems to mean that nothing will be achieved.
The Algerian authorities will also have the opportunity to celebrate the country’s Revolution Day on 1 November, an annual event to mark the beginning of the war of independence from France, and this will be given added importance this year because of the summit.
But the summit will be overshadowed by enormous economic worries, including soaring inflation, squeezed supply chains, and threats of food insecurity.
Algeria, an energy-rich country, suffers from recurring nationwide food shortages that experts attribute to its ailing economy. The scarcity of several basic consumer goods has triggered public outrage that could weigh heavily on the summit celebrations.
But in the most important sense the Algiers summit will likely be another futile meeting for the simple reasons that have lain behind hosting previous Arab gatherings.
A pan-Arab consensus on the major geopolitical, economic, environmental, demographic, and cultural challenges facing the Arab world is certainly not one of them.