Shifting sands in the Arab world

Disagreements between leaders as new players challenge traditional Arab powers.

    Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar (right), is hosting the summit [AFP]

    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.
    In depth

     Sadat's peace gambit
     A matter of Arab unity
     Palestine since 1915

    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.

    "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"

    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 and the Muslim 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. 
    It is believed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak will not attend the Doha-hosted summit [EPA]
    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 and Muslim 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.

    Iraq effect
    Iraq, of course, remains the biggest problem to hit the area since the dispossession of Palestine, and its impact on neighbouring countries has yet to be properly felt.
    Talk of the limited American withdrawal has done little to improve even the political situation; the US and the UK had hoped recent municipal elections would bring a secular group to share the power, but they have merely confirmed the force of religious and Iran-friendly parties.

    "Iraq is nowhere near a peaceful epilogue, no matter what is being said, or rather not said, on most mainstream media"

    While the Bush administration simplistically blamed all the violence, chaos and discord on Syria and Iran, the Saudis know full well that it has been impossible to control the outpouring of anger, and the increase of radicalisation, within its own borders. 
    Iraq is nowhere near a peaceful epilogue, no matter what is being said - or rather not said - on most mainstream media.
    On the contrary, having added fuel to the fire with sectarian discourse in its own media relating to Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and beyond, the "moderates" are now facing the inevitable backlash. 
    With explosive situations in Palestine and Iraq, unresolved issues in Lebanon, uncertain futures for the political leaderships of countries preparing for change, a hint of worsening conflict in nearby Afghanistan, and a global recession hitting the financial stability of even successful oil states, Saudi Arabia has a lot of catching up to do if it is to regain any perception of leadership and the power to influence multiple regional parties - even when accounting for damage that cannot be undone and for the personal animosity that has developed between certain leaders.

    New alignments
    The fact remains that new alignments will undoubtedly continue to change the shape of regional politics, and that the days of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis are definitely over.

    Qatar's apparition as a power broker, benefiting from a multitude of good connections regionally and internationally, is not going to be an easy act to follow, even assuming that it were about to relinquish its post.

    Just like Turkey, which has emerged on the scene extending a hand of partnership in its own neighbourhood while simultaneously cultivating its ties outside the Arab world, including with Iran, Qatar has found itself on a political pedestal, using its ties wisely and truly developing a new vision for the region after setting the pace in the media sphere.

    No matter how little real progress happens in the upcoming Arab summit, and with the expected vague statements assuring unity, it seems that this vision is here to stay.
    Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an associate fellow at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. 

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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