x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Divisions within the Arab League bog down summit

Libya has finally returned to the fold of Arab countries, even hosting last week's Arab League summit in Sirte, the hometown of Colonel Muammar Qadafi.

Libya has finally returned to the fold of Arab countries, even hosting last week's Arab League summit in Sirte, the hometown of Colonel Muammar Qadafi. Since it joined the League of Arab States in 1953, Libya had never hosted one of its summits. In his usual role as the "voice of the masses", Col Qadafi triggered the first crisis before the summit even officially began. A few days before the opening, he received tribal and non-governmental delegations from Sudan, Jordan, Mauritania and Iraq, who called on him to "make the summit more effective" according to state TV.

The group from Iraq included former loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime. On Thursday, during Arab ministerial meetings, Iraq's foreign minster Hoshyar Zebari briefly walked out in protest. Mr Zebari, who spent a great deal of time living in Libya as a member of the Kurdish opposition, was polite enough to his former hosts but insisted on his country's right to hold the next Arab summit. Not many Arab leaders supported the idea, which would be the biggest collective Arab recognition of the new Iraq since the American-led invasion of 2003.

At the top of the summit's agenda this year were the paralysed Middle East peace process, support of the Palestinian people in Jerusalem, regional security (dubbed as the "Arab neighbourhood"), and continuing bloodshed in Darfur. The League's secretary general Amr Moussa put forward two proposals that were discussed behind closed doors. On the peace process, he called on Arab leaders to get tough with the current Israeli government. Members decided that there would be no negotiations without a complete freeze on settlements.

On security, Mr Moussa called for a regional forum including the Arab states, Iran and Turkey. (Libya also proposed including Chad.) Mr Moussa said Iran should play a more constructive role in the region based on reassurances from Arab countries that they would not support US military action against its nuclear programme. It exposed a basic disagreement between moderate Arab countries, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who generally oppose including Iran in any regional body, and other Arab states that warn Iran should not be alienated. To avert another crisis, members asked Mr Moussa to present a detailed study of the idea at the next summit scheduled for September.

Tehran's regional role in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, as well as its close relations with Syria, irritates many moderate Arabs. That irritation spilt over in heated exchanges during closed sessions between Mahmoud Abbas and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad. The Syrian president pushed for stronger Arab resistance against Israel, while Mr Abbas accused Syria of supporting Hamas and blocking the Egyptian-Palestinian reconciliation proposal which Fatah had already accepted.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also attended the summit in a sign of growing ties with the Arab League. His attendance was also seen as an opportunity for Arab countries to seize on worsening relations between Turkey and Israel and encourage Ankara to play a more active role in the region. Another non-member that played a role was Chad, whose proximity to Darfur and role in that region's bloody conflict makes it an important player in any settlement towards Sudan's stability. The country has served as the main supply line for many of the factions fighting Khartoum in Darfur. Concerned about events on its own south-eastern borders with Darfur, Libya has backed including Chad in future security talks on the region.

Perhaps the most momentous decision didn't have much to do with the Arab League at all. At the opening session, the Spanish foreign minister managed to convince Libya to accept a truce over its feud with Switzerland and drop a travel ban for citizens from countries covered by Europe's Schengen treaty. In a statement the next day, Libya's foreign ministry announced its "victory over Switzerland". In the end the summit tapered off to a rather dull ending, not what the majority of Arabs expected from their leaders. It gave the impression that many important issues had been postponed until the summit proposed for September.

In truth, the Arab League has never been popular among most Arabs, who view it as a bureaucratic institution lacking vision and authority. Col Qadafi's opening remarks joked about redistributing power to restore credibility with the Arab masses, which of course he says he represents. And Libya did try to maximise the propaganda generated by the summit, inaugurating radio and satellite TV channels specifically for the event, hosting the first Arab youth and student summit, and putting on a spectacular folk performance on the airport tarmac for Arab leaders on their arrival.

The average Libyan, however, may not have been so impressed. Last December, I wrote a column in The National about how roadwork on my street had stretched on for months. Three weeks before the summit, I found out that most of the digging was to supply power to the new luxurious conference complex being built to host the summit. At the last minute, realising the complex would not be ready, the government shifted the summit to Sirte. The city has the largest conference centre in Africa, but lacked other facilities and journalists were housed in two luxury cruise ships because of an accommodations shortage. But most Libyans might not hear about it - some of the national internet capacity was diverted to the summit too.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Tripoli-based academic and political analyst