On display at Arab Summit: division and declining influence

Arab leaders are gathered in Jordan, but the region's main movers and shakers – Iran, Russia, and Turkey – are absent, a telling sign that the Arab League's influence over events and its own citizens has waned.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Jordan's King Abdullah II, center, welcomes Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a reception ceremony at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan March 28, 2017.

For years, the stage was almost as big as the larger-than-life strongmen that made it their own. Muammar Qaddafi. Saddam Hussein. Yasser Arafat.

At times both politics and pageantry, the annual gathering of leaders at the Arab Summit has been a guiding force in Arab politics and a source of drama for Arab citizens, who have rarely seen anyone challenge their autocratic rulers over the past half-century.

But many of the region’s strongmen have made their exit in recent years – voluntarily or forced – and humanitarian, security, and political crises have plagued the Arab world, which has yet to establish a new regional order.

This year’s Arab Summit in Jordan consequently is serving a different function, officials and analysts say: as a showcase of the lack of Arab leadership and the waning influence of the Arab League.

With several states reeling in uncertainty and strife after both the ouster of dictators and weakening of remaining autocrats, the League – like the Arab world itself – is divided, looking inward, and dominated by the Saudi rivalry with Iran.

The summit ostensibly provides Arab leaders the opportunity to discuss the issues impacting the region, such as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. But the players and deal-breakers who are shaping events behind the scenes are noticeably absent: Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That such players are absent makes a sobering point: that the Arab leaders themselves are as out of touch with the dynamics shaping the region as they are with their publics at home.

“The Arab League is a dead body being kept in the ICU out of hopes we can find a new remedy to revive the Arab regional order,” says Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

“The major decisions being taken about the region are not being taken by Arab strongmen anymore,” says Mr. Rantawi, “they are being taken by Iran, Turkey, and Russia.”

Even summit host Jordan – the event is being called the Amman Summit, though most meetings are being held 40 minutes away, on the shores of the Dead Sea – has warned that unless a drastic breakthrough is made this year, the times will have passed Arab leaders by.

"The Arab political system has failed to solve the crises and halt the collapse, as the trust of Arab citizens in the joint Arab institutions has eroded," Ayman Safadi, Jordanian foreign minister, warned Monday at a gathering of foreign ministers.

Arab Summits past

Although past summits often brought to the forefront the bitter, decades-long divisions in the Arab world between the pro-US and Soviet-leaning Arab nationalist camps, they also paved the way for shared policies that Arab states would follow for years.

After the Arab losses in the 1967 war with Israel, 22 Arab states agreed to the “three nos,” which would become their policy toward Israel for a generation: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.

In the Arab Summits in the 1980s, talks focused on bringing an end to the civil war in Lebanon. That eventually resulted in the Taif Agreement, which ended 15 years of hostilities.

In Beirut in the 2002 summit, Arab states agreed on the ground-breaking Arab Peace Initiative, under which 22 Arab states would recognize and establish normal relations with Israel in exchange for its return to the pre-1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Fifteen years later, the initiative remains the Arab states’ official stance on peace in the region.

Yet as Arab leaders gather at the Dead Sea this week, the Arab League itself is becoming increasingly ineffective – and irrelevant.

Much like the Arab world itself, the League is dominated by Saudi Arabia and its allies among Sunni Gulf monarchies. The Gulf powers have spent the past decade pushing back against the growing influence of Shiite Iran, which has furthered its interests through its own military and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and even Bahrain.

The case of Syria

The Saudi-Iran division has been especially apparent over Syria, where Tehran’s allies have pushed other Arab states to reinstate Syria at the Arab League and accept Mr. Assad’s hold of power as part of any peace deal.

In the face of the brutal civil war in Syria, and the Damascus regime’s crimes against its population, the Arab League had suspended Assad’s membership in the organization in November 2011.

Several initiatives launched by the League failed to curb the fighting in Syria or bring peace a step closer. Arab leaders themselves are divided whether to bring Assad back in from the cold. Host Jordan sided with the previous League decision and did not invite Assad to the summit.

Arab leaders cannot even agree on a stance toward Iran, which provides funding and training to the Shiite militias that support the government in Baghdad and provides financing to Hezbollah, the Shiite movement that has become a major political force in Lebanon. Along with Oman, Iraq and Lebanon are pushing for cordial ties with Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and its allies such as Jordan and the UAE are looking to keep the Arab League intact to support the formation of a united Arab Sunni bloc, and a hope of providing legitimacy to their policies, experts say.

This has left states with a large Shiite populations or ties with Iran to distance themselves from the Arab League to steer clear of the summit. Iraq’s and Oman’s leaderships are noticeably absent from this year's event.

Analysts and officials admit that the Arab League, which was built on strong personalities, is in need of restructuring to reflect the changing dynamics in the region.

“When Nasser ruled Egypt or when Saddam, [Hafez] Assad, and Qaddafi were in power and at their climax, the Arab League had some weight as a tool in these leaders’ hands,” says Youssef Cherif, a Tunisian political analyst. “Later, however, it became a place for chicken fights and empty rhetoric.”

'Iran, Iran, Iran'

The infighting and lack of decisive leadership has allowed the crises paralyzing the region to continue unabated, experts say. As Saudi Arabia attempts to monopolize power in the faltering League, wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya continue without an end in sight.

While Syria and Libya are expected to be discussed at the Amman Summit, the divisive issue of Iran will remain the main concern for the Saudi bloc. Efforts by the various Arab foreign ministers and leaders will meanwhile be spent on countering terrorism, followed by the Palestinian cause.

Jordanian officials privately have remained hopeful that a breakthrough could be made on the Palestinian crises as well as on Libya.

An Arab Gulf delegation was less than optimistic, however, saying that until Iran is addressed, all other issues will be “pushed to the side.”

“Iran, Iran, Iran – that is our priority,” says an official on the sidelines of the Summit.

“How can Arab states bring peace and stability to the Arab world when there is an active player undermining it?”

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