The Arab League’s economic and social summit, held in Beirut on 19 and 20 January, hardly showed the organization at its most dynamic.
All Arab heads of state were invited. Almost none turned up.
“We wanted this summit to be an occasion that brought together all the Arabs, leaving no vacant seats,” said the host, President Michel Aoun of Lebanon, in his opening remarks. “The hurdles were unfortunately stronger.”
Most countries sent minor officials to represent them, but two states in particular were notable by their absence. One was Libya.
The antagonism between Lebanon’s Shi’ites and the state of Libya goes back some 40 years. On 25 August 1978, at the invitation of Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, the revered Shia religious leader Musa al-Sadr set off with two companions for a meeting. The three men were last seen on 31 August. They were never heard from again. Supporters of Lebanon’s main Shi’ite political party Amal, have continued to press the Libyan government to investigate the circumstances of their disappearance, but to no effect.
Consequently, from the time Lebanon was selected to host the new summit, Amal supporters announced that they opposed Libya attending. Finally they threatened to block the Libyan delegation at the airport if they tried to fly in, and then symbolically burned a Libyan flag. Shortly afterwards Libya announced that it would not be present.
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Another non-attender was Syria. Soon after the start of the Syrian civil war the Arab League, appalled by the violence and bloodshed of President Bashar al-Assad’s response to opposition dissent, suspended Syria’s membership. Nothing succeeds like success, and the fact that Assad, with the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has regained a large part of the territory lost to Islamic State in the early years of the conflict, has generated a change of attitude among Arab nations.
In December 2018 the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria for eight years. Sudan and Saudi Arabia have recently become close, and many believed the visit was a gesture of friendship on behalf of Saudi Arabia. But Syria is aligned to the Shi’ite arm of Islam, and in the weeks before the summit the Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament, Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite, called for the whole event to be postponed until Syria was invited. Both Syria’s reconstruction and its refugees were on the agenda, and Berri asked what the point was of discussing them in Syria’s absence.
He was far from alone. Most of the Sunni Arab world is strongly opposed to the Iranian regime’s ambition to dominate the Middle East, but there was reportedly a growing consensus among the League’s 22 members that, despite the fact that Assad has been in a close alliance with Iran, Syria should be readmitted. The logic of supporting Syria’s return into the League lies in the hope that it might swing Assad away from Tehran and back into the Arab fold. It is often forgotten that the Iranian nation, though Muslim, is not Arab.
When the 28 members of the European Union meet, they are at least at peace with one another. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of the 22 members of the Arab League.
“Half these countries are fighting each other in wars or undermining each other,” said Rami G Khouri, a Beirut-based political columnist.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, are battling the Iranian-supported Houthis in a conflict that has reduced the country to famine and penury. Although delegates from the Saudi-backed and officially recognized government of Yemen attended the summit, the League had nothing to offer on its humanitarian crisis.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are at daggers drawn with Qatar, with whom they have cut off diplomatic relations and tried to isolate economically. In Syria several Arab states have funded one or other of the rebel groups that have been combatting Assad’s government forces.
The venue chosen for the summit, Lebanon, exemplifies the chaotic state of intra-Arab relations. Eight months after a general election the country still has no government. Dominated by Hezbollah, the “state within a state”, it is not only locked into a political stalemate, but is also the unhappy locus of a struggle between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Two issues that the Lebanese hosts desperately wanted help with were the huge burden imposed by the influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict, and the failing economy. But when one of the League’s assistant secretary-generals, Hussam Zaki, landed in Beirut to oversee preparations for the summit, he announced: “The internal political problems in Lebanon have nothing to do with the Arab League.”
He was to be proved wrong. While the summit was still under way, mass rallies involving some 20,000 people were held in Beirut to protest the government’s economic policy. The most recent survey has revealed that more than 25 percent of Lebanese citizens live in poverty. The day after the summit Qatar stepped forward and offered to invest $500 million in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, not to be outdone by the nation it is seeking to isolate, had its finance minister announce that his country would “support Lebanon all the way.”
As for the refugee issue, the Arab League agreed, somewhat controversially, that refugees should be “encouraged” to return to their home country. A joint statement, read by Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil, called on the international community to foster “favorable conditions for return” by providing aid in their home country.
Many countries, particularly the Gulf states, were hesitant to encourage refugees to return in the absence of a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Bassil, however, announced that: “This statement represents a victory for Lebanon” and a “gesture of solidarity” from Arab countries.
If so, it was a minimally positive outcome from an organization clearly in the doldrums.