Egypt hosted a mini Arab meeting on 22 August that brought together the leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, and the UAE. The five-way meeting was preceded a day earlier by a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE.
The two meetings took place in the context of fast-moving developments in the Middle East and Gulf region.
Negotiations are underway in Vienna among the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear agreement of 2015, with the aim of the US rejoining after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018 and Iran complying once again with the terms of the agreement.
At the time of writing, nothing definitive in this regard had been achieved. Speculation abounds about the conditions under which the US and Iran could agree to reactivate their participation in the JCPOA. The successful conclusion of the ongoing negotiations would have a significant impact on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and the Gulf.
Turkey and Israel also resumed their diplomatic relations on 17 August, a move that is destined to weigh on Middle Eastern politics and regional dynamics. The move on the part of the Turkish government came in the framework of changes in Turkey’s relations with its Middle Eastern neighbours, including Egypt.
In a move that took many by surprise, the Turkish government has also signalled that it is open to the idea of opening up to the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not rule out what he termed “dialogue and diplomacy” with Damascus. A few days earlier, Devlet Bahceli, leader of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement, the main political ally of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, welcomed the steps taken by the Turkish government regarding Syria, calling them “valuable and fortuitous.” The Deputy Chairman of the Turkish ruling party Hayati Yazici, went a step further, saying that “relations with Damascus could become direct and the level of representation could be upgraded.”
The mini Arab meeting last Monday dwelt on these developments and also discussed ways and means of strengthening relations, particularly in the economic, trade, financial and investment sectors, among the five participating countries.
The regional developments have been taking place while the crises caused by the decade since the “Arab Spring” remain unresolved, whether in Syria, Libya, or Yemen. The political and economic situation in Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and Tunisia is also critical to say the least. Economic challenges and hardships have become major sources of insecurity and instability. In Syria and Iraq, the threat of the Islamic State group (IS) has not disappeared. The lack of political progress and growing economic difficulties have helped this terrorist organisation to recruit and indoctrinate.
While regional and international powers have almost a free hand when it comes to meddling in the domestic affairs of some Arab countries, the Arabs have not come up with an overall strategy, political, economic, and financial, to deal with Arab crises. Needless to say, most Arab countries are committed to all UN Security Council Resolutions related to them. However, they have not shown that they have the joint political will to push through collective endeavours that could resolve these persistent crises.
Take the case of Syria, for instance. The Arabs have supported the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015 that contains a roadmap for the transition to a more democratic polity in Syria. Yet, what we have been witnessing in reality is that the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Israel have been the main players in Syria, each for its own interests, of course. In some instances, these interests overlap, like in the case of Russia and Israel when the former lets the latter attack Iranian military targets on Syrian soil.
Without forceful Arab diplomatic and political input, I doubt that the crises that have beset the Arab world over the last decade will find a peaceful resolution.
The mini Arab meeting that Egypt hosted last Monday aimed at formulating a common Arab position vis-à-vis the security, political, and economic challenges facing the Arabs. To gain more weight, Saudi Arabia with its growing financial clout because of the increase in oil prices should be on board.
The most immediate challenge facing the Arabs today is probably the upcoming regular Arab meeting scheduled for next November in Algeria. This will be a make or break occasion for the Arab countries and their ability to find common ground to tackle their crises. The growing financial and economic strength of the Gulf oil-producing countries should be the catalyst for new approaches to the host of problems and questions besetting the Arab world.
If the next regular Arab meeting could come up with a Marshal Aid-like plan for the Arab world financed by the Gulf oil and gas-producing countries, that would be a new and promising dawn for the Arab world and particularly for the Middle East. It goes without saying that in order to arrive at such a plan there will need to be the joint political will to solve the Arab crises.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.