Doha, Qatar – The 25th Arab League summit is set to begin on Tuesday, but new divisions have stifled hopes of meaningful progress on the conflict in Syria, the ongoing threat of political violence in the region and another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
With days remaining before the gathering in Kuwait, an unresolved dispute between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has added to the divisive situation in both Syria and the Palestinian territories.
Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmad bin Hilli said that “everybody considers the summit exceptional because of the conflicts in the Arab region”.
The likelihood of unity on any of those issues, however, is slim. “It will be very difficult to come up with a consensus among the 22 Arab states – more so than usual, because it is very polarised by the Arab Spring between those who want to preserve the status quo, and those who want to change it,” said London-based Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter.
A divided League
Ashour sees the Arab world as being divided into three coalitions. The first group supports the changes wrought by the Arab Spring, and includes Tunisia and Qatar, as well as the non-Arab state of Turkey.
The second group, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, opposes the revolutionary forces of the Arab Spring, viewing change as a threat to stability.
The GCC is capable of addressing any dispute or misunderstanding among its members within the framework of its own procedures and the wisdom of its leaders.
Ashour also sees a third, pro-Shia coalition, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the non-Arab state of Iran. This third group is interested in preserving the status quo where their supporters are in power, such as in Syria, but backs revolutions where their interests coincide with those of the opposition, as in Bahrain.
These differing policies have led to a public rift in recent weeks between the countries of the Gulf, with Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on the other.
The dispute led to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrawing their ambassadors to Qatar, a development that does not bode well for the Arab League’s capacity to take any significant action on pressing regional issues. Some have even suggested that if a solution is not found soon, it could spell the end of the GCC, with a new organisation formed in its place.
The summit will not address disputes between the oil-rich Gulf states, officials said.
“Some media outlets have reported that the Gulf dispute will be discussed and this is not true,” bin Hilli said in a statement, according to the Kuwait News Agency. “The GCC is capable of addressing any dispute or misunderstanding among its members within the framework of its own procedures and the wisdom of its leaders.”
Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is at the crux of the GCC spat. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have branded the group as a “terrorist organisation”.
“Perhaps there will be some lobbying against the Brotherhood, but it won’t be particularly successful,” said London-based Middle East analyst and columnist Sharif Nashashibi. “It’s easy for Saudi Arabia to denounce them because they’re not a major force there. But in other countries, even Saudi allies like Jordan, they form such a large part of the government or opposition that outlawing them would destabilise the country.”
Political parties affiliated with the Brotherhood hold the office of prime minister in Morocco, seats in the Kuwaiti parliament and make up a large portion of Tunisia’s governing coalition.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas rules Gaza. “The Arab states are divided over who are the good and the bad Palestinians,” Ashour said. “Countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt support Fatah and see Hamas as bad Palestinians and a threat.”
Arab states are also deeply divided over Syria and its ongoing civil war. Iraq, Algeria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis of northern Yemen have all to some degree supported Bashar al-Assad’s government, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and a number of other states have provided support to armed opposition groups that the government calls “terrorists”.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting fighters in Iraq and effectively declaring war on the country.
“The problem is the politicisation of the term ‘terrorism’ – the word is being applied selectively by the Arab states to undermine their opponents,” said Ashour.
To cancel the summit would risk sending such a strong message of disunity that it is better to hold it and hope it doesn't come to blows.
‘An exercise in futility’
Not holding the summit, however, would have consequences of its own. “The Arab League summit is an exercise in futility, but it is better than the alternative,” Nashashibi said.
“To cancel the summit would risk sending such a strong message of disunity that it is better to hold it and hope it doesn’t come to blows.”
The Arab League’s perceived ineffectiveness is far from unique, analysts say, noting that the UN Security Council is under scrutiny again for its perceived inability to take decisive action.
“The Arab League doesn’t create these problems. It’s the member states, and often outside powers, that do,” Nashashibi said. “This is not an Arab problem – it’s a global problem.”
Follow Jassim Mater on Twitter: @jassim41