Arab summit on the front burner

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Arab Summit meeting in Bahrain on Thursday will be a test of unity in response to the threats encircling the Arab world.



Ahead of each Arab leadership summit, officials and diplomats come out to hype the annual Arab League forum as particularly crucial in facing up to regional challenges. The gathering in Bahrain on Thursday may not be an exception.

With Israel’s war on Gaza in its eighth month, the Middle East faces a pivotal moment, and the resulting security and political crises are challenging the Arab world with long-term consequences likely to bring about major transformations in regional geopolitics.

As the Arab League approaches its 80th anniversary next year, the summit will be another test for an organisation that has long been criticised as being ineffective as the common expectation of being a protector of Arab interests has gone from bad to worse.

In several rounds of shuttle diplomacy to the Arab capitals to deliver invitations to the summit, Bahrain Foreign Affairs Minister Abdel-Latif bin Rashid Al-Zayani urged their leaders to attend the meeting and to come up with resolutions to “enhance Arab solidarity and support efforts for peace, security, and stability in the region.”

In his remarks, Al-Zayani underlined the “dangerous situation” and the “security challenges” that the Arab leaders should address at the summit, which is being held for the first time in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

Arab League diplomats who have been working closely with member states to build up a consensus for the summit’s agenda echoed the worries about security threats and urged that pressing issues be tackled.

The annual gathering, which is meant to be a platform to exchange ideas about inter-Arab politics, is usually held in March. But the scale of the Israeli invasion of Gaza has created an apocalyptic situation that has made the conflict loom large over the Arab world.

However, 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 in a conflict that poses a unique conundrum for the Arab world.

Since the war started following the surprise attack by Hamas out of Gaza on 7 October last year, stunning Israel and leaving hundreds dead in the fighting, the Arab League and Arab governments have issued a series of condemnations and calls to stop the war while the Arabs’ views have remained divided on choices to deal with the crisis.

With Israel’s war of aggression rumbling into Gaza’s southern district of Rafah last week, sparking fears of a new occupation of the Strip and a severe humanitarian crisis and mass exodus, the day after the conflict presents daunting new challenges for Arab policymakers and strategists.

Concerns are growing after Israel launched an operation on 6 May to secure the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing as part of its declared objectives to control the border with Egypt and to destroy Hamas positions.

The onslaught came after Israel rejected a ceasefire brokered by Egypt, Qatar, and US CIA Chief William Burns and accepted by Hamas. Israeli officials said the assault would continue until Israel achieves its declared goal: the destruction of Hamas, “whatever the cost,” as Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallan has vowed.

It was a slap in the face of the US and the Western nations, which are by far the biggest supporters of Israel, and other major powers who have failed to exert real pressure to stop what is widely seen as a threat to the region’s stability and security.

The Arab governments must have hoped that a breakthrough in ending the war would have been achieved by now, but as the summit in Bahrain approaches only a slim hope for a temporary ceasefire in exchange for a limited hostages and prisoners-swap is on the table.

The gathering should therefore look into the broader conflict and send a clear message about what the Arabs should do as a result of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which is widely expected to be a major regional game-changer.

Apart from disbanding the political and governing bodies of Hamas, Israel has not explicitly revealed its plans for the day after in Gaza, leaving the door open for speculation about its intensions to torpedo the two-state solution, a proposal made in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and expected to be reiterated at the Bahrain Summit.

Before the Gaza conflict started with the bold attack by Hamas inside Israel, many analysts reckoned that the Arab world was entering a new era when a dysfunctional old regional order was dying, and a new one was being born.

Although it was widely predicted, there were no agreed features of this upcoming Arab order or its nature, and some even doubted its existence, proposing instead a new status quo and changing national and regional security affairs. 

Yet, the new dynamics do not obviate the fact that a new regional order must eventually emerge, one which accounts for both ongoing global shifts and enduring geostrategic realities in the Middle East.

The manifestations of this new order have appeared in two key developments within its general framework: Iran’s rising power, and the US-brokered peace agreements that several key Arab states have reached with Israel.

Iran’s growing influence represents a daunting challenge, especially to the Arab countries in the Gulf. Its rise has resulted from its expanding role in the region, from its nuclear programme to its hegemonic ambitions in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

Iran’s alliance with the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Palestine Islamic Jihad to form the so-called “Resistance Axis” has underscored its willingness to be more assertive in regional policies and to be perceived as appealing to Arab public opinion.

The normalisation of ties, known as the “Abraham Accords,” between the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan with Israel in 2020 was a strategic move on the Middle East chess board that was expected to usher in a new era of closer cooperation and partnerships between the region’s old enemies.

Later, Saudi Arabia was also engaged with the US Biden administration in negotiations to join the Abraham Accords before the bid, pegged on the prospect of a broader security and political deal between Riyadh and Washington, was halted by the Israeli war on Gaza.

Interactions between these two diametrically opposed changes might have contributed to varying degrees to the conflict in Gaza, especially during the Iranian-Israeli standoff in April, and they now seem to be emerging as leverage for a post-war Middle East characterised by increasing polarisation and instability.

When it comes to the summit this week, the Arab heads of state and government present will need to provide the decisive leadership needed to push through a comprehensive approach in which the interests of their countries and their prosperity transcend the regional and global polarisation that has sapped them in an apparently endless circle of conflicts and instability.

While they should continue to mend fences with Iran and engage in efforts for a more stable region, they should also resist US pressures for closer ties with Israel after the normalisation agreements proved ineffective and failed to stop Israel from carrying out its genocidal war against the Palestinians.

The Arab countries, and in particular those which have diplomatic ties with Israel, have failed to stop Tel Aviv from continuing its indiscriminate and brutal military drive in Gaza and its post-war plans to leave the Strip ungovernable and in ruins.

One of the ideas being entertained by Israeli strategists and US policymakers is to set up a civilian administration in Gaza designed to provide cover for an Israeli occupation and managed or assisted by some Arab countries that have signed peace and normalisation agreements with Israel.

To prevent this scenario from emerging even under the pretext that it will lay out a pathway to support Palestinian statehood, the summit should take a clear stand that no Arab country will individually or collectively be dragged into any such plan.

Arab summits have always been seen as largely ceremonial and events at which no major political decisions are taken. This gathering will be a strategic test to see whether the Arab countries can be more united and robust or whether they will continue to put their problems on the back burner.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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