Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Lebanon fails to attract high-level turnout for Arab economic summit

Most Arab heads of state failed to attend, in what seems to be a snub to Lebanon

 A general view during a plenary session at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut, Lebanon. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
 A general view during a plenary session at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut, Lebanon. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

Lebanon’s efforts to boost its international prestige by organising the fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit over the weekend were severely hindered by the absence of many Arab heads of State.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz were the only two Arab leaders to attend the summit, which was the first to be held since 2013.

The other leaders' absence appeared to be a snub to Lebanon, which had hoped to make use of the summit to enhance its diplomatic status and attract financial support from Arab states.

Mr Al Thani did not stay long enough in the Lebanese capital to deliver a speech, which was read by Qatari Minister of Finance Ali Shareef Al Emadi, and headed back to the airport shortly after a photo session at the summit’s opening session.

However, his express appearance was much discussed in Lebanon. “He became the star of the summit”, says Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The Voice of Lebanon radio reported that Mr Al Thani has agreed to deposit $1 billion with Lebanon’s central bank and help pay for the cost of the summit, citing unidentified people with knowledge of the decision. The Qatari ambassador to Lebanon as well as a Lebanese spokesperson denied these claims, which some said were damaging to Lebanon’s reputation.

Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Mohammed Al Jadaan concluded his speech by suggesting that the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit should be incorporated in the Arab League’s annual summit. The next one will be held in Tunis in March.

“In a nutshell, they are saying that this summit (in Beirut) is meaningless as the issues will be discussed again”, says Mr Khashan. “This summit is perfunctory”, he says.

During his opening remarks at the summit, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he regrets “the absences of some brotherly kings and presidents who have their justified excuses.” He did not elaborate.

He also said he regrets seeing “empty seats,” at the summit. “We tried our best to resolve the reasons that led to this absence, but unfortunately the obstacles were stronger [than our efforts].”

Mr Aoun did not detail the obstacles but there were two empty seats in the conference hall: Libya, which boycotted the event and Syria, which did not receive an invite.

Libya announced last week that it would boycott the summit after supporters of a Lebanese political party burnt the Libyan flag outside the summit venue. The Amal Movement had said that Libya should not be invited, and its supporters threatened to cut off Beirut’s airport road to prevent the Libyan delegation from reaching the summit venue.

At the heart of tensions between the Amal Movement and the Libyan state is the case of party founder and cleric Musa Al Sadr who went missing in 1978 on a trip to Libya at the invite of then-leader Muammar Qaddafi. The Amal Movement has maintained that the Libyan state has been unco-operative with attempts to uncover the fate of the revered cleric.

Meanwhile, Syria was not invited despite a demand by Hezbollah and the Amal movement that Damascus should be at the conference. They had hoped that such an invite would serve as a prelude to restoring Syria’s membership in the Arab League.

Other obstacles that hampered attendance included controversy over the issue of refugee returns. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil opposed including the word “voluntary” in a summit agenda item related to refugee returns ahead of the conference, angering Arab states, especially those wary of forced repatriation efforts.

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The Lebanese president on Sunday used the summit as a platform to call for the return of Syrian refugees. He said that Lebanon had paid a hefty cost as a result of conflicts in the region, adding that his country hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

He called on the international community to help secure the safe return of the refugees, especially to stable parts of the country, without waiting for a political solution to the conflict. He also said that they should offer incentives for refugees to return and contribute to their country’s reconstruction.

He also called for the establishment of an “Arab reconstruction and development bank” that will assist “all affected Arab states and people” in overcoming their struggles and achieving long-term economic growth.

Updated: January 20, 2019 07:37 PM

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