Beirut, Lebanon – Poor attendance of regional leaders and divisions over Syria overshadow the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit which begins on Sunday in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.
At Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport on Saturday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun received Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the only other head of state expected to attend the summit.
Although a handful of Arab leaders had originally confirmed their attendance, the emir of Kuwait and the Egyptian and Palestinian presidents pulled out at the last minute.
Instead, 20 countries taking part in the summit sent delegations that arrived in Beirut throughout Friday and Saturday, including Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
The economic summit, which has attracted numerous leaders in previous years, is a prelude to the actual Arab League summit taking place in Tunisia in March.
Elias Sakr, Lebanese journalist and analyst, called the summit a “complete failure”.
“It shows that Lebanon, given its political divisions, has failed to get the Arab states to agree on a strategy that would help it face its economic and political challenges,” Sakr told Al Jazeera.
Although it has a lower profile than the Arab League summit, the lack of attendance portrays Lebanon’s weak regional diplomacy, and domestic and regional rifts over Syria and its ally Iran, other analysts said.
“The lack of attendance gives a message that Lebanon lacks agency,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a political analyst at Carnegie Middle East Center.
“The attendance of Arab leaders would have supported Lebanon, a failing state economically and politically, and would have helped it relaunch itself on the Arab stage after being seen as an Iranian pawn for years,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
Normalisation with Syria
A major point of contention, both regionally and domestically in Lebanon, is whether Syria should be reinstated as a member of the Arab League following Syrian President Bashar al-Assad taking control over most of his war-torn country.
While Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called for Syria’s return to the Arab League during a pre-summit meeting on Friday, referring to Syria’s absence as the “the biggest gap in the conference”, the group’s Secretary-General Ahamed Aboul Gheit told journalists at a press conference later in the day that there was no agreement over Syria’s return.
Syria’s membership in the League was suspended in 2011, but political forces inside Lebanon remain divided over the issue, reflecting a wider rift among neighbouring countries over the prospect of normalising ties with Damascus.
“The divide is domestic and regional. Hezbollah and Amal [backed by Iran] want to bring Syria back into the league, while other groups do not,” said Yousef Diab, a Lebanese political analyst.
Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah has fought alongside Assad, and its political allies including President Michel Aoun have recently stepped up calls for rapprochement with Damascus.
“Likewise, while some Arab countries such as Iraq and Algeria may support the move, Arab leaders’ boycott of the summit signals some sort of blame towards Lebanon for wanting Syria at the summit,” Diab told Al Jazeera.
Part of the contention around Syria also relates to Article 13 of a proposed summit statement, which discusses the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.
While Lebanon, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, called on Friday for their return to Syria, other countries have been divided over the wording of the article with some Arab ministers insisting that this discussion must be linked to a political solution in Syria.
Lebanon is also expected to present on Sunday an initiative for setting up a funding structure to rebuild Arab countries devastated by wars.
Another contentious issue that plays into the weak attendance at the summit is Libya, analysts said.
Libya decided to boycott the summit after members of the Lebanese Amal party tore down and burned its flag near the summit venue last week.
The Hezbollah ally replaced the Libyan flag with their own to protest the disappearance of Shia leader Musa al-Sadr while visiting Libya in 1978.
“The list [of attendees] was acceptable for an economic summit, but after the incident, many pulled out in a show of solidarity with Libya,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
The incident has also reflected negatively on Lebanon’s security situation.
“What happened with the Libyan flag, and the lack of response from the state to hold the perpetrators accountable, has shown that on a security level, Lebanon is not fit to host this summit,” said Diab.