After weeks of speculation that mounted into a mood of scepticism over its fate, the much-delayed Arab Summit meeting now seems set to take place in the Algerian capital Algiers in the first week of next month.
The ordinary autumn meeting of Arab foreign ministers early last month agreed to go ahead with the planned top Arab gathering that has been suspended for two successive years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2019, Arab leaders held two successive summit meetings. In the regular spring slot, they met in Tunis for the annual Arab Summit. In May, they met again in Mecca upon a Saudi invitation for an extraordinary Arab Summit meeting that focused on concerns expressed by Saudi Arabia and some other Arab Gulf countries over Iranian regional policies.
Algeria was scheduled to host the summit this year in the regular spring spot, but it requested a delay. Up until last summer, there was hesitation at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League about confirming that the summit would meet in the autumn in the Algerian capital.
Some concerns related to internal political developments in Algeria, while others related to Algeria’s relations with other Arab countries that are not without shades of disagreement on Arab and regional policy choices, including developments in Libya, positions on North and East African issues, including the obvious case of the Western Sahara, and positions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Syria was another key sticking point, given the determination that Algeria has been showing regarding the re-integration of Syria into the conference system of the Arab League after it was ejected in 2011 due to the force used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to quell the uprising in the country.
The situation then turned into an open-ended Civil War that incorporated foreign fighters on the side of a segment of the Syrian opposition and foreign armies and militias on the side of the Al-Assad regime.
Algeria’s determination to bring Syria back into the League meetings was supported openly by the UAE and privately by other Arab capitals eager to turn the page of the Arab Spring. However, many of these were still firmly opposed to Al-Assad.
Arab League officials and Arab diplomats say there is no Saudi interest in contesting the brutality of the Syrian regime, which forced millions of Syrians into traumatic displacement, but there is hostility between Damascus and Riyadh from years prior to the Arab Spring.
Informed Arab sources say that avoiding an open disagreement over Syria’s representation at the summit has certainly helped pave the way towards its convocation.
The situation was resolved when Syria offered Algeria a face-saving exit, as it announced that it did not wish to be present at the summit. For the Arab League, this was a turning point, as it put the preparatory phase for the summit in motion.
The secretariat of the League has been working closely with Algeria to prepare the logo of the summit, the accommodation of the delegations, the schedule of the sequel of the preparatory meetings that lead to the meeting of Arab leaders, and the agenda and resolutions to come out of the summit.
This has been far from a smooth operation. As last week was coming to an end, speculation was still high about the number of heads of state who are likely to show up for the summit, if only for the inaugural session where leaders make their official statements.
By Monday, the expectation was not particularly high – with a range of seven to eight leaders being proposed, though with the possibility of an increase.
The biggest question relates to the possible participation of Moroccan King Mohamed VI or the lack thereof. It has already been over a year since Algeria decided to sever diplomatic relations with its neighbour over alleged “hostile action.”
Earlier this month, however, Algeria sent its minister of justice to Morocco to hand Tebboune’s invitation to the Moroccan monarch to either attend or to delegate his crown prince or some other senior state official to come in person.
According to an Arab League source, King Mohamed might send the Moroccan crown prince. Algeria, he added, is trying very hard to secure as high-level representation as possible at the summit.
Participation aside, there are also question marks on the management of the summit and its possible outcomes.
Libya is a major sticking point for the summit, especially as far as Egypt is concerned. Twice last month, Cairo chose to shrug off the incumbent foreign minister of Libya, Najla Mangoush. At the opening of the ordinary Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri walked out as Mangoush started chairing the ministerial meeting in accordance with her role.
Later in the month, in New York, Shoukri shrugged off a regular informal meeting of Arab foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly due to the participation of Mangoush.
The position is designed to show Cairo’s dismay over the failure of Abdel-Hamid Dbeibah, the official Libyan prime minister, to act in line with his promises to Egypt on a balanced management of relations with both Egypt and Turkey.
Earlier this month, a senior Turkish delegation was in Tripoli for a series of cooperation agreements including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cooperation on oil and gas, including in unexplored Eastern Mediterranean fields.
The MoU was signed by the Libyan foreign minister and her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, who headed a senior Turkish delegation in Tripoli. Hours after the signing, both Cairo and Athens contested it and said in a joint statement issued by Shoukri and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias that Dbeibah’s government had outstayed its legal mandate and was in no position to sign such agreements.
It is not clear how Arab delegations that take exception to Dbeibah’s political positions would react to his possible presence at the summit at the head of his country’s delegation.
The representation problem aside, the management of the resolutions on Libya is equally tricky, given the position of Egypt that the government of Dbeibah is in no position to propose resolutions for adoption regarding the situation.
One informed political source said that the Libyan delegation could present a resolution asking for support for the formation of a new Libyan government after elections to be held at the earliest possible moment. But this is far from being something that all the Arab countries, especially those who have lent their support to the Fathi Bashagha parallel government, would agree to.
Meanwhile, it is not expected that the summit, despite the intense diplomatic mediation that Tebboune himself has invested in promoting Palestinian reconciliation, will produce any significant positions that could force the rival Palestinian factions, essentially Hamas and Jihad, on one side, and Fatah, under the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the other, to come to an agreement.
Nor it is expected for the summit to take any firm stances against Israel to contest the harsh Israeli aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, given the momentum of Arab-Israeli normalisation, which has reached unprecedented levels especially with the UAE and Morocco.
There will still be a set of resolutions on the Palestinian cause, but nothing significant enough to match developments on the ground that were recently qualified by a senior Palestinian official as “an intifada in the making”.
No firm stance is expected from the Arab Summit on any of the other long list of Arab problems, including the volatile situations in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan or Somalia, and certainly not on the disputed situation of the Western Sahara that Algeria and Morocco have been squabbling over for decades.
A set of resolutions is expected to come out in support of the continued “war on terror,” economic cooperation among the member states of Arab League, and the movement towards environmentally friendly socio-economic policies, especially since the summit will take place practically on, 1 November, the eve of the UN COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.