Marc Lynch

Dueling Arab summits

 The Arab public really is blessed.  For instance, for weeks Arabs have been calling loudly and angrily for their governments to do something about the carnage in Gaza.  Where an ordinary public might have to settle for, say, a summit meeting of their leaders to hammer out a plan for action, those lucky ducky Arabs ...

 The Arab public really is blessed.  For instance, for weeks Arabs have been calling loudly and angrily for their governments to do something about the carnage in Gaza.  Where an ordinary public might have to settle for, say, a summit meeting of their leaders to hammer out a plan for action, those lucky ducky Arabs get two, even three dueling summit meetings. If only they could accomplish half, even a third as much as other regional groupings, no?

On the one side, Qatar is hosting a summit with 13 Arab states, including Syria, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, Hamas leaders, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedenejad (2 states short of a quorum to make it an official meeting). Egypt refused to attend, in part because — in the words of its own government — al-Jazeera had hurt its feelings. Saudi Arabia refused to attend, with pro-Saudi writers denouncing the Doha gathering as the "summit of division." Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas stayed away, while Fatah officials openly criticized the Qatari initiative. At the summit, Qatar and Mauritania — two Arab states known for their openness towards Israel — have just announced that they are freezing their diplomatic and economic relations with Israel

On the other side, Arab foreign ministers gathered in Kuwait for an alternate session dominated by the Egyptians and Saudis in preparation for an economic summit previously planned for Monday. The Foreign Ministers backed Egyptian cease-fire efforts, while the Saudis called for the Arabs to go back to the UN to demand implementation of Resolution 1860 (the passage of which they had previously claimed as their great success against all odds).  A relief package of some $500 million for rebuilding Gaza was floated as well. I’m sure all eyes will be glued to Kuwait on Monday to see if they can deliver something ahead of Obama’s inauguration. 

Meanwhile, the GCC leaders meeting in Riyadh yesterday in an emergency summit called to discuss Gaza seemed more concerned with criticizing the Qatari summit than with Gaza. The presence of Ahmedenejad in Doha particularly incensed Saudi commentators. and they agreed to postpone any decisions until the upcoming economic summit in Kuwait. The Qatari-Saudi rivalry is clearly back. 

Three observations about the choices made by key states between the dueling summits: 

  • In Jordan,  popular opinion seems to be very strongly in the Qatari camp.  King Abdullah has been more carefully aligning Jordanian foreign policy with public opinion — at least rhetorically — than at any previous time in his decade of rule that I can recall.. probably out of regime security concerns. At the same time, he faces great pressure from the U.S., Israel, and other Arab ‘moderate’ states,  (and hasn’t forgotten his long-standing conflict with Hamas). All this means that after being one of the first Arab leaders to call for a summit, King Abdullah stayed with the Saudi-Egyptian axis and away from the Doha Summit because there was not "a consensus among member states on holding the meeting."
  • Turkey, which has long maintained a close strategic relationship with Israel and was recently the venue for "secret" Syrian-Israeli talks? It chose Doha. I suspect that it may take longer for the Turkish-Israeli relationship to recover than Israelis seem to think.
  • Iraq, which the Bush administration spent so much blood and treasure to turn into part of the axis of pro-U.S. "moderate" Arab states?  In Doha. Nor did this seem a tough call. Pro-Gaza passions appear to be running high, judging by the number of reported demonstrations, statements of politicians and religious leaders of all stripes. Iraq was represented by Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, though any number of senior Shi’a officials would likely have been as comfortable joining Ahmedenejad at the event. Continuing tense relations between the Iraqi government and the Saudis may have also contributed to the decision to show up in Doha.

The Jordanians have tried to portray their stance as outside of any camps in the polarized Arab environment"always with the Arab consensus", as the Jordanian newspaper al-Dustour put it — and many politicians on both sides of the divide have appealed for Arab unity and consensus. But there is no Arab consensus, and the camps appear to be hardening.  Even if a cease-fire can be reached before the inauguration, as many are hoping, the costs of the war will continue to be felt well beyond the direct suffering of a devastated Gaza.  The intensification of this "new Arab cold war", the weakened position of most of the pro-U.S. Arab governments and Fatah, a much more radicalized political environment, and the likely increased repression by Arab governments in response of growing pressures from below, are only four more costs of Israel’s war on Gaza which will continue to be paid well into the next administration. 

[NOTE: post updated to add the three bullet points after I got back from a meeting and before any comments were submitted.  Apologies for any confusion.]

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