The Gulf and the Arab Summit

Hussein Haridy
Monday 20 Dec 2021

There have been few indications of preparations for next year’s Arab Summit in Algeria apart from among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, writes Hussein Haridy

In a period of rapid and uncertain regional changes, the Arab world is bracing for the next regular Arab Summit meeting in Algeria in March next year to see whether the decisions and positions of the Arab heads of state and government will translate into a common and practical vision for moving forwards and away from tedious resolutions that are almost always copied from precedents.

The list of inter-Arab and inter-regional changes is as varied as it is challenging. Needless to say, the secretariat of the Arab League is working on a proposed agenda and is drafting draft resolutions for the Arab Ministerial Meeting that precedes the summit. Once approved, these will be submitted to the summit meeting for approval.

The upcoming Arab Summit will take place as the decade since the 2011 “Arab Spring” comes to a close. This has been a difficult decade, and some would say that the outcome has not been easy to perceive in terms of inter-Arab relations. For example, will the Arab governments elaborate a common position on Syria? Or will their divisions persist? 

Thus far, there are no indications that governments across the Arab world are working closely to prepare for the post-Arab Spring era with what this entails for inter-Arab relations and changes across the larger Middle East and in the international system in the light of the new realignment of forces between democracy and authoritarianism – in other words, between the West, divided as it is on specifics, and Russia and China. 

However, there has been one unmistakable exception to this perception of a lack of preparation in the shape of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

As part of a whirlwind tour, the crown-prince of Saudi Arabia visited all the member states of this regional organisation from 7 to 10 December in preparation for the summit meeting of the GCC that Saudi Arabia is hosting this week. The tour took him to Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and finally Kuwait, in chronological order.

The declared objectives of the tour encompassed three major questions, namely inter-Gulf relations and how to advance the further consolidation of the GCC in the military cooperation, defence, economic and commercial fields and to coordinate the positions of its member countries with regard to Arab, regional and international questions.

Saudi Foreign Minister Sheikh Faisal Al-Farhan tweeted on 10 December that the tour aimed to stress the importance of Gulf solidarity, the promotion of economic cooperation among its member states, the coordination of Gulf positions regarding regional and international questions, and, most importantly in the point of view of this writer, the preparation for the Gulf Summit.

Whatever this summit adopts will, unsurprisingly, be the common denominator for the Gulf countries at the next Arab Summit meeting in Algeria. Differences among the GCC member states on, for example, how to deal with Iran and its nuclear programme, the war in Yemen, the Lebanese situation, and Syria will be papered over momentarily to reflect overarching Saudi positions.

There is nothing against coordination among the GCC states in the field of Arab politics, but the question is whether there will be a different approach by the other Arab countries so that the Arab Summit in Algeria will be a launching pad for forward-looking positions on how to deal with the uncertainties and expected changes in the Arab world in the post-Arab Spring era.

Going over the joint statements released after every stop of the Saudi crown-prince in the cities he visited on his tour last week, it is difficult to see any perceptible changes in the already known positions of the Saudi government concerning the most urgent and important questions that will be discussed at the Arab Summit. 

Yet, if this is the case, then the Arab world will remain in the confines of the status quo, that is, in traditional positions that could have suited a certain era in Arab politics that is coming to an end, but that are no longer responsive to the strategic and political necessities of tomorrow.

For the next Arab Summit meeting to be really meaningful, there must be wider coordination among the Arab countries, including the GCC member states, on finding new solutions to old and persistent challenges. It goes without saying that such coordination is badly needed in the light of the not-so-secret talks going on between some Gulf countries and Iran as well as the recent contacts between some of these monarchies with both Turkey and Iran.  

Another question that calls for a new approach is the Palestinian issue and Arab-Israeli relations. Since the last Arab Summit meeting two years ago, there have been radical changes in the equation thanks to the “Abraham Accords” inspired by former US president Donald Trump under which four Arab countries, two of them Gulf monarchies, have “normalised” their relations with Israel. These countries are the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Thus far, the accords have not had any significant bearing on the prospects for peace in the Middle East, let alone the much-hoped for resumption of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

In the light of the above considerations, and in the absence, at least for now, of inter-Arab coordination on the conclusions of the Arab Summit next year, the chances of a summit meeting that will set the stage for new ideas and new approaches – in sum for a new departure in Arab relations with the surrounding strategic environment – are slim.

The summit meeting will convene as diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco remain severed, as Israel is deepening its relations and security presence in Morocco with the implications of this for security and stability in North Africa, and as the highly fluid domestic political situation in Tunisia, Libya and Sudan continues.

Egypt will stand to gain if it is able to work with all the Arab countries, and closely with Algeria as the host country of the summit meeting, to come up with a forward-looking Arab roadmap to the near and more distant future in the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as, no less importantly, with a roadmap setting out Arab relations with Israel and their linkage with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the larger question of Arab-Israeli peace including in Syria.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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