'Arab summit is political theatre'

Arab leaders meet annually, but the summits produce little, says As'ad AbuKhalil.

    Arab leaders have failed to offer meaningful help for Palestinians, says AbuKhalil [GALLO/GETTY]

    Arab leaders are currently meeting in Libya in a ritual summit held almost annually since the end of the Second World War.

    Although the League of Arab States (also commonly referred to as the Arab League) was established in 1945, it was not until 1964 that member states met for the first time at the Cairo headquarters to discuss the Israeli threat - to water resources.

    Arab leaders met in a unified bid to study the danger of Israeli plans to divert the waters of the River Jordan. The summit plan was as effective as the subsequent Arab military plans to deal with the Israeli threat.

    The Arab League was founded at the behest of the British, just as the Gulf Co-operation Council was founded at the urging of the US. One should not mistake these external pressures as efforts to push for Arab unity; in fact, quite the opposite is  true. 

    Western powers have always been hostile toward all efforts of Arab unity, especially when Gamal Abdel Nasser,the late Egyptian president, stood as the symbol of Arab nationalism.But Western powers have favoured regional alliances that promoted Western security and political agendas. 

    The Arab League was a compromise between Arab popular expectations for a larger Arab political entity, and British concerns about Arab nationalism getting out of hand.

    Arab summits have failedto get the Arab public's attention since the defeat of Jordan Syria and Egypt by Israel in June 1967. Prior to that date, Arabs had hoped that their leaders would plan and execute a serious military operation to defeat Israel and liberate Palestine.

    Grand promises

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    Prior to Israel's occupation of Palestine in 1948,Arab newspapers used to send their top correspondents to cover pan-Arab meetings. Press clippings from that era were full of references to solid plans to defeat Zionism without even allowing for the Jewish state to be created. 

    Speeches were fiery and promises were grand. Arab leaders even signed a joint military pact.  The key word was "joint". Arab leaders were supposed to coordinate their political, diplomatic, and military moves especially when it came to confronting Zionism and helping the Palestinians. 

    Of course, the first war in 1948 was a humiliating experience for the Arabs, and a devastating blow to Palestinian aspirations.

    The joint military pact did not amount to much: the rag-tag Arab troops that entered Palestine to prevent the Jewish state from occupying Palestine often engaged in "friendly" gun fights amongst themselves. 

    Ultimately, the regimes that led the Arab armies in 1948 were overthrown (except in Jordan). New Arab governments came to power in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and later in Sudan and Libya. The new regimes spoke the language of Arab nationalism and promised a quick fix for the occupation of Arab lands.

    Amin Hafiz, the Syrian president in 1963, claimed that he had a solid plan that would defeat Israel in three days. Nasser, to his credit, was more cautious and stressed that planning for the liberation of Palestine required years of careful consideration.

    But he also was ill-prepared and made fateful decisions (such as being dragged into the war in Yemen, appointing the notoriously incompetent Abdul-Hakim Amir as commander of the Egyptian forces, and allowing himself to be pushed by Jordan and Syria in 1967 into taking uncalculated risks that produced the eventual defeat). 

    Watershed moment

    Arabs in general drew distinctions influenced by Nasser's political rhetoric between "progressive Arab regimes" and "reactionary Arab regimes" - the "tails of colonial powers", as Nasser called them.

    That distinction was buried in June 1967 during the Six Day War,a watershed event in Arab history. All the hopes that were pinned on Nasser and the Baathist socialist ideology were dashed. It would be fair to say that Arab summits never mattered after that day—at least as far as the Arab people are concerned.

    Nasser never recovered from the 1967 defeat of Arab countries by Israel [GALLO/GETTY]

    Nasser attended the Arab summit in Khartoum in 1967, but he was a broken man,and he had to depend on Saudi and Arab help to rebuild his armies. 

    No more was the distinction made between the two camps in Arab politics relevant to the Arab people. Both had failed in fulfilling their promises. 

    Arab leaders continued to meet in irregular summits. But no one was paying attention anymore. No one expected Arab leaders to confront Israel when it invaded Lebanon in 1982, or when it attacked Gaza in December 2008,or when it attacked Lebanon in 2006, or when the US attacked Iraq - twice. 

    Arab leaders now meet for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the aspirations of the Arab people or dreams of Arab unity.They meet first and foremost to bestow the honour of hosting the summit on one another. 

    Every year, an Arab ruler and country play host to the summit. That carries with it a certain degree of formal prestige. The leader of that country receives more visitors and dignitaries than usual and is seen on his state TV receiving heads of state, and representatives of international organisations. 

    Impression of business

    "Arab leaders now meet for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the aspirations of the Arab people"

    As'ad AbuKhalil

    Secondly, Arab leaders often meet in order to follow US dictates. 

    Hosni Mubarak,the Egyptian president, hastily arranged an Arab League meeting in Cairo in the summer of 1990 in order to prevent an Arab consensus from developing  to resolve the crisis created by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, because the US was pursuing its own agenda to expel Saddam's army, and to project its power in the region. 

    The Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 was also an attempt (largely by Saudi Arabia, but also by other Arab governments as well) to fend off the wrath of the Bush administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 

    Arab leaders have another reason to meet. They like to project an impression of business; that they are attending to the problems of the people. But at some level, they are well aware that no one is paying attention. 

    Long flowery statements are still issued by Arab leaders, but they are not read anymore. This is not the age of Nasser. This is the era of ageing Arab leaders (or their sons) who lack charisma and popularity. 

    This is the age of US dominance in the Middle East where Arab leaders are given little room to manoeuvre. 

    Arab summits were capable of at least rhetorical surprises: the "Three No's" of Khartoum (no to peace with Israel, no to recognition, and no to negotiation) in 1967 are the most famous, but now we know that those governments that officially endorsed the formula were already negotiating secretly with the Israelis.

    The US government now keeps a very tight lid over the regimes that it controls.  When King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, referred to the US occupation in Iraq as "illegitimate" during his opening speech at the Riyadh Arab summit in 2007, a diplomatic crisis ensued and the King has never used that expression since. 

    The Arab people now are accustomed to gatherings that produce long, tedious documents that no one (except translators at foreign embassies) actually read. 

    Between watching Syrian and Turkish TV serials, and watching proceedings of Arab summits, the Arab people may be worshipping the remote control. Gone are the days when they were subjected to one state-controlled channel that bombarded them with speeches and daily movements of the "dear Arab leader".

    As'ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of the Angry Arab blog.

    Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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