The 21st Arab League summit held this week in Doha, Qatar ended up being little more than a summit of egos.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – just indicted for war crimes in Darfur by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – arrived to a red-carpet and hero’s welcome; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak boycotted the entire gathering; Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi walked out during the opening session; King Abdullah II of Jordan left early, apparently for not having been greeted by the Emir of Qatar but by another member of the royal family; and Hamas was not even invited. Having accomplished little, the summit adjourned one day early.
Overshadowing the gathering of Arab leaders and the League’s stated agenda of ‘reconciliation’ between the decidedly pro-American, anti-Iranian camp of nations (represented by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and those more willing to recognize Iran as an important regional power (namely Syria and Qatar), was the presence of al-Bashir.
In embracing al-Bashir and “rejecting” his indictment, the Arab League thumbed their noses at the West and the ICC, who called for his arrest but ignored the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. It may have been an understandable move by the League (which no doubt involved a bit of collective self-preservation), but certainly was not good public relations.
Next, attention was focused on the volatile and unpredictable Libyan leader. In the morning session, he railed against Saudi King Abdullah who he said was “made by Britain and protected by the United States.” To ensure the truthfulness of these words would be quickly forgotten, he went on to declare, “I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level.” He then stormed out of the hall.
Hosni Mubarak of Egypt chose not to attend the summit altogether, the second year in a row he has snubbed it. His reasons were juvenile and partially borne out of jealousy for Qatar upstaging Egypt’s traditional role as powerbroker in the Arab world and mediator of its internal disputes. It was after all the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Ibn Khalifa al-Thani, who brokered the agreement last year between Lebanon’s March 8 Coalition (Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement) and the ruling March 14 Alliance, resulting in an equitable allocation of cabinet seats, eventual election of President Michel Suleiman and an end to the long standoff.
The Emir also convened an emergency Arab summit in Doha during Israel’s assault on Gaza earlier this year, and helped with reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah (and between King Abdullah and Qaddafi during the summit). His backing of Hamas in the Gaza war was another reason Mubarak kept well clear of Doha.
It was Sheikh Ibn Khalifa al-Thani who appeared to have made the most cogent and germane remarks, warning of the potential catastrophic effects the global economic crisis may have on the Middle East, stating, “… the Arab world is in the direction of the wind and the eye of the storm.”
With looming economic concerns, the brouhaha over al-Bashir’s presence, and some notable absences (the kings of Morocco and Bahrain also did not attend); little if any time was spent on the fallout from Israel’s barbaric attack on Gaza. Other than to reiterate the League’s endorsement of the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan calling for full recognition of Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the League’s position appeared stagnant at a dynamic time.
After an inhumane embargo which had deprived Gaza of basic humanitarian supplies and necessities, the use of white phosphorus against civilians by the Israel Defense Forces, and countless reports of the deliberate targeting of innocent men, women and children (first by Palestinian eyewitnesses, then verified by humanitarian agencies and now confirmed by Israeli soldiers), the Arab League was mute.
To prevent other leaders from boycotting the summit, the remarkable decision of not extending an invitation to Hamas – the democratically-elected Palestinian government –was made. In the meantime, Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory and demolition of homes continues unabated under the new leadership of a right-wing prime minister, a fascist foreign minister and a coalition of extremist religious parties.
Not only did the Arab heads of state fail to heal deep regional rifts, they did not tackle the thorny issue of relations with Iran or even begin to address the regional ramifications an increasingly likely Israeli attack will have. Instead, egos, petty disputes, red-carpet welcomes and diplomatic snubs held sway.
Once again, ordinary citizens of the Middle East this week were reminded why the Arab League has become an utterly irrelevant, feckless institution.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.