Shifting Sands In the Arab World

Arab League Summit Doha
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar (right), is hosting the summit

AFRICANGLOBE – As disagreements between Arab leaders come to the fore before this week’s Arab League summit, the emergence of new key players in the region presents fresh challenges for traditional Arab powers.

Following reports that six heads of Arab states – including Egypt – will not attend the Arab League summit in Doha this week, it appears the proverbial saying about Arabs’ agreement on disagreement, and more specifically that of their leaders, still holds.

If Arabs finally do agree on certain questions this week, however, even with the increasingly low expectations that these summits now generate, dreams of Arab unity on the major issues are unattainable under the present circumstances.

Deteriorating relations between several regional powers have been dubbed the Cold War, but with so much hot air, fiery speeches and proxy fights, it has been anything but cold.

On the most thorny issues, two main camps face each other, with several undecided others fluttering in-between, trying not to alienate any of the countries on either side.

It is not yet clear whether the demise of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis was for better or for worse, but its repercussions have demonstrated that Arab states are interdependent in spite of – or perhaps because of – differences of opinion

Since attempted isolation and communication freezes simply made matters worse, the new modus operandi has evolved into an admission that consultations and agreements got better results and, in Sun-tzu terms, that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Reconciliation moves

The official mood of reconciliation follows the mini summit organised by Saudi Arabia earlier this month, ostensibly held to bury the hatchet it was, however, organised in a puzzling manner.

If Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now considered to be the “moderate front” while Syria has been paired with Qatar as the “rejectionist front,” should not the latter have been invited as well?

Instead, the Saudi ruler hosted his Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti peers, unable or unwilling to suppress his displeasure with the emergence of unexpected new forces in the Arab world.

Indeed, Qatar’s position has been a source of considerable irritation for Saudi Arabia, as it watches a country many times smaller play pan-Arab counsellor and broker successful pacts, such as the Doha Agreement last May between opposing Lebanese factions.

Qatar’s initiative in hosting an emergency Arab summit as Israel smashed Gaza gave the most distressing testimony of regional power plays and the damage they brought on the Palestinian cause, assuming one can still speak of this cause on an Arab level.

With the “moderates” boycotting the meeting and pressuring the Palestinian president to stay away, the platform was left for Khaled Meshaal, political head of Hamas, to show a leading role at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli war on Gaza was lived with anguish and rage in most of the Arab world, irrespective of the positions of the rulers.

Saudi role

It is apparent that Saudi Arabia, with hindsight, feels the need to regain control of a role it had allowed to slip, and appear to speak in the name of a somehow cohesive Arab world, and an Arab cause beginning with Palestine.

As popular grief turned to anger while footage from Gaza filled television screens, Saudi media was eventually pushed into a more extensive coverage of the war and a more public response.

Regaining the cloak of Palestinian defence is the next logical step for the Saudis, hoping they can seal the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas which Egypt has repeatedly promised, but failed to achieve.

Obviously, such a deal also needs the collaboration of Syria; while hopes of weakening its relations with Iran may also be on the distant agenda, no serious observer believes it is feasible in the short term.

With Gaza possibly having served as a political wake-up call, especially after Hamas remained unbroken, the Riyadh meeting was set up for several purposes, one of them being to insure that Qatar could not take credit for this rapprochement, and that it be made on its own turf.

Saudi Arabia also wishes to reach a collective position on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, declared dead by the Syrian president during the mini-summit in Doha.

If, however, there are plans to affirm that rumours of its death have been exaggerated but that a time limit will come into effect, Saudi Arabia needs the consensus of all Arab leaders, and the Riyadh reconciliation is also a step in that direction.

Saudi Arabia and Syria still see Lebanon from very different perspectives, and the appointment of a Syrian ambassador to Beirut this week should be seen as a public gesture of goodwill or cooperation, even though both Damascus and Riyadh know that this will change next to nothing in dealings with Lebanon.

With elections scheduled for June, there is a declared wish to keep things as civil and orderly as possible.

The Saudi king seems keen on keeping the big files under control and under a general consensus, especially as the region adjusts to a new American administration and a forthcoming Israeli government whose agenda leaves little to the imagination regarding its plans for Palestinians.

Without influence on all Palestinian parties, Saudi Arabia cannot pretend to play a leading role, a situation not suited for its credentials as an Arab power.

It is important to try to interpret Saudi – and Egyptian – behavior outside the narrow parameters of relations with Iran, on which the vast majority of media have been focusing even in their analysis of the Palestinian problem.

Part Two