Marc Lynch

The end of Arab summits?

The end of Arab summits?

 Does the puzzling failure of the Doha Arab summit signal the demise of Arab summitry?  That’s a question which is being batted around the Arab media over the last few days in the wake of the baffling early conclusion of the summit in Qatar and its failure to address any of the urgent issues facing the Arab world. Will the Doha summit go down in history as the swan song of Arab summitry?  

 Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, the director of the Saudi TV station al-Arabiya and a reliable window into official Saudi thinking, wrote yesterday that the time has come to abolish Arab summits altogether.  The thought is echoed by the editor of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat, who grumbles that the problem isn’t that Arab leaders don’t meet, it’s that they do.  But it isn’t just a Saudi thing:  the negative reviews span the political spectrum. Abd al-Bari Atwan of al-Quds al-Arabi also wonders why anyone would expect anything more of today’s Arab leaders.  It’s quite an accomplishment when the "resistance camp" media and the Saudi media agree.      

 Meanwhile, Hosni Mubarak has now skipped two summits in a row, without even bothering to provide an official explanation (even if his efforts to convince others to stay away failed miserably).  Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly went home early because he was upset that he wasn’t met by the Emir at the airport (of such stuff is high politics made in the Arab world).  Much of the summit was overshadowed by the pyrotechnics between Moammar Qaddafi and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and the Qatari Emir’s efforts to smooth over the public spat.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems to have gone home empty-handed after the Saudi King refused to meet with him, nobody agreed to cancel debt, and the vacuous official statement declined to include boilerplate praise for improved Iraqi security or democracy. Hamas issued a statement complaining that the Summit did nothing for the Palestinians and ignored the threat posed by Netanyahu.  (And that’s not even getting into the support for Omar Bashir, which I’ll write more about later.)

 Above all, the Doha summit simply punted on all of the major issues facing the region. No effort was made to deal with Palestinian divisions, as Hamas was kept away.  No effort was made to deal with disagreements over Iran, as Ahmedenejad was kept away out of deference to Saudi and other Gulf sensibilities and Iranian issues were kept out of the final statement. No real effort was made to overcome the persistent gap between the moderate and resistance camps, despite all of those efforts for the last two months.  Perhaps the problem, as one Palestinian columnist argued, was that the Summit tried to get reconciliation without addressing the substantive differences… leading to inevitable failure.  But what’s more telling than the failure is the lack of evidence that there was even much effort. 

 It’s unlikely that Arab summits will actually be abolished, of course. They play a symbolic role and are well-institutionalized.  But at the same time, their significance and relevance may well be in steep decline. The wider Arab public is simply disgusted with the whole affair, and takes the summit’s failure as just one more example of the irrelevance and impotence of the official Arab order.  Qatar itself shifted smoothly from the desultory one-day Arab summit to a festive Arab-Latin American summit featuring Hugo Chavez.  The growing role of non-Arab powers in the region — especially Iran and Turkey, along with Israel and the U.S. — along with the chronic inability of the Arabs to unify their ranks contributes to a sense of Arab irrelevance.

 And to top it all off, the next two summits are scheduled to be held in Libya and Iraq.  After Qaddafi’s performance this year, it’s easy to see how the Saudis and others (including Mubarak) may find better things to do than to go to Tripoli next spring.  And many might also happily stay away from Baghdad in 2011 if security conditions in Iraq remain tenuous or if Arab dissatisfaction with Maliki or his successor continues.  So will Doha go down into history as the end of an era in Arab summitry?  What might replace it?