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Acrimony in Algiers Undermines Arab League Summit

Acrimony in Algiers Undermines Arab League Summit

  Arab leaders convened in the Algerian capital on November 1-2 for the 31st Arab League Summit.  It was the first time in three years that the league’s members had gathered in person, but many of the region’s most important leaders decided not to attend.  Absent from Algiers were the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the President of the United Arab Emirates, the Kings of Morocco, Bahrain and Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait and the Sultan of Oman. 
            Their staying away speaks volumes about the divergent interests that are tearing the Arab League apart.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt opposed a move by Algeria to include Syria at the summit.  Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain are at odds with Algiers, which rejects the Abraham Accords and the strengthening of ties between those countries and Israel. Algeria’s ongoing support for the Polisario Front and its importing of Iranian drones for the group represents a serious escalation of hostilities with Morocco. 
            In the face of unprecedented challenges facing the region, the Arab League once again proved itself incapable of rising to the challenge of the moment.  The food crisis produced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is devastating the Arab world.  141 million of the region’s citizens suffer from food insecurity.  Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia are struggling to import enough wheat to meet demand. Half a million Yemeni children are malnourished, a situation made even more acute by the fact that 40% of the country’s grain supply comes from Ukraine.  Lebanon relies on Ukraine for 80 percent of its wheat imports.
            While most of the Arab League’s members have adopted a position of qualified neutrality on the Ukraine conflict — voicing a preference for diplomacy over war — Algeria has bucked that trend by negotiating a $12-$17 billion arms deal with Russia and scheduling a joint military exercise on its territory. 
            In a tacit acknowledgement of irreconcilable differences, the Arab League — as it usually does — settled on the least common denominator:  a final communique so full of pablum that it was essentially meaningless. Arab leaders called for “collective Arab action” to face common challenges, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their disagreements render such action impossible.  Especially laughable was the statement’s “rejection of foreign interference in all its forms in the internal affairs of Arab countries.”  Lebanon and Yemen remain prisoners of Iran, and the Islamic Republic has launched dozens of missile attacks against Iraq. Syria is a client state of Russia.  Turkey has seized parts of Syria, and along with Russia, is fueling civil war in Libya.
            The summit expressed “support for efforts to end the Libyan crisis through an inter-Libyan solution,” which conveniently ignores the competing agendas and destructive competition among the League’s member states backing opposing factions in that conflict.  Calls for “a joint effort” by Arab states to end fighting in Syria ring particularly hollow, since the organization failed even to agree on the matter of Syrian representation.  
            Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas secured the League’s “absolute support for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit stated that “Palestine is the pivotal cause to the Arab nation.”  While all may agree on the need to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, the means to achieving that goal remain a matter of great contention.  On one end of the spectrum are League members who have normalized relations and enjoy growing ties with Israel. On the other side are those, led by Algeria, Syria and Lebanon, that remain in a state of hostility with the “Zionist entity.”  In the middle are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman, who are hedging their bets and pursuing quiet diplomacy with the Jewish state.  
            The election of Benjamin Netanyahu and the installation of far-right government will severely test the viability of the normalization approach of the Abraham Accords signatories, but the trend lines are clear.  Israel no long remains the pariah that it once was in the Arab world, and Netanyahu’s disruptions notwithstanding, there is no returning to the past. 
            There are two types of leaders in the Arab world:  those who look to the future and embrace change, and those who remain wedded to the historical anachronisms of the past.  Algeria clearly represents the latter.  Saudi Arabia, the host of next year’s Arab League Summit, is the standard-bearer of the former. 
            A growing number of Arab leaders as epitomized by Mohammed bin Salman and President Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, are charting their own course, prioritizing national interests over a slavish devotion to the collective will of the “Arab nation,” which has proved manifestly incapable of delivering meaningful results for its people. The lackluster outcome of the 31st Arab League Summit demonstrates that their course is the right one.  

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