Kuwait summit: Arab unity or disunity?

Behind customary public pronouncements, representatives from the 22-member League of Arab States clashed in private.

Despite disagreements the Arab League members put out a common final communique, writes Kechichian [EPA]

At the League of Arab States’ (LAS) 25th summit, leaders gathered in Kuwait to address perennial concerns, ranging from the lingering Palestinian-Israeli dispute, to the more recent Arab uprisings and the devastating civil war in Syria. Inasmuch as significant differences remained, wire reporters hinted that delegates had considered not issuing a final communique, although cooler heads prevailed and one was duly read out in the end.

Many shook their heads at the gamut of issues addressed by participants and their advisers in the 17-page long “Kuwait Declaration“, which covered dozens of issues that the delegates had discussed. The document once again supported the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) quest to regain full sovereignty over the Abu Musa and the two Tunb islands occupied by Iran since 1971. It also called on France to return Mayotte Island to the Comoros, and expressed approval of the April 2013 reconciliation in South Sudan, among other matters.

Delegates dotted the i’s and crossed as many t’s as possible, although three persistent disputes preoccupied them most.

The question of Palestine

As in the past, the League’s heads stood by the hapless Palestinians and backed their refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, which was the core obstruction to the ongoing US-led peace talks.

Analysis: Arab league’s take on Syria and Egypt

“We express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state,” declared the final  statement, which also echoed the 2002 summit’s consensus. At the time, the League’s leaders gathered in Beirut, agreed to recognise Israel in exchange for a full and complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war. However Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later threw a fresh spanner in the works when he insisted that Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular acknowledge Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.

Although attractive to Israel and its Western backers, such an acceptance would eliminate the “right of return” for the overwhelming number of Palestinian refugees.

It was interesting to note that Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke eloquently on the subject, and reiterated that he would never recognise Israel as a Jewish state, which was probably the only subject that LAS delegates agreed upon in toto.

Syria’s civil war

Sharp differences emerged over the League’s goal to usher in a political solution to the civil war in Syria, now in its fourth year. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Ahmed Jarba was barred from filling President Bashar al-Assad’s vacant seat.  As Syria’s membership in the League was suspended in November 2011, Jarba’s calls for “sophisticated” arms to tip the balance of power did not fall on deaf ears, even if substantial disparities emerged.

“We call for a political solution to the crisis in Syria based on the Geneva I communique,” declared the statement. That said, Saudi heir apparent Salman bin Abdul Aziz, was highly critical of those who “betrayed” opposition forces fighting for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He further called on delegates to “change the balance of forces” (sic) on the ground in Syria. And the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was highly critical of the Syrian government, for not heeding repeated calls to negotiate with opposition forces.

Despite being at odds over their views on the Muslim Brotherhood, both Riyadh and Doha were indirectly targeted by the joint UN-LAS peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who appealed for an end to the flow of arms to combatants in the war. But the UN diplomat was coy, as he read Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s speech, which underscored how the “whole region [was] in danger” of being dragged into the conflict, which led him to plead with LAS members to work “with the Russian Federation, the United States and the United Nations, to take clear steps to re-energise Geneva II”.

But Brahimi made no references to Russian arms delivered to Damascus. Nor did he call on Iran, or Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to withdraw their fighters from Syria and terminate any military assistance that they extended to the Assad regime.

Brahimi listened carefully as the SNC’s Jarba challenged the League’s leaders, as he urged Arab leaders to pressure world powers to fulfill previous pledges to supply arms, and declared: “I do not ask you for a declaration of war”, just effective weapons. Brahimi was probably not satisfied with the overall tone that would effectively freeze the next Geneva gathering, and observers noted his facial expression, as he scanned the room for any reaction from chief delegates.

Refugees in Lebanon

Whether Brahimi discussed with LAS leaders the appalling conditions that Syrian refugees were subjected to in neighbouring countries was impossible to know. Suffice it to say that Arab leaders took note of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s warnings that the presence of 1.5 million Syrians threatened the stability of the Levantine state.

Arab League summit fails to reach consensus on pressing issues

Suleiman was pleased that the LAS backed the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces, and thanked the summit delegates for offering their full support to Lebanon. In what appeared to be a carefully planned step, Suleiman urged League members to encourage their allies to not involve Lebanon in Syria’s conflict – a proposal easier said than done.

LAS impasse

Although Arab consensus proved elusive when the LAS was created in 1945, many worked hard to narrow differences. From Gamal Abdul Nasser’s quest for unity in the 1950s to the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, and from failed associations with foreign powers – especially the Baghdad Pact – to the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, Arab leaders struggled to define their roles within the League.

Regrettably, most of these initiatives failed, some due to foreign interference, others because of intra-Arab disputes. The only hopeful alliance was the GCC though even it came under duress in the aftermath of the post-2010 Arab Uprisings.

In fact, this year’s summit followed an unusual dispute within the GCC over alleged Qatari support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. To his credit, the summit host, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, urged his guests to overcome rifts, as he said enormous dangers existed all around them. Whether he was now ready to follow up on his warnings and try to defuse the worsening dispute between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on one side and Qatar on the other, remained to be determined.

In general, both LAS members and GCC states disagreed sharply over the political role of Islamists in the region. In particular, Saudi Arabia was adamant in its total rejection of any interference in Arab affairs by Shia Muslim Iran, so it was difficult to see how the two sides could see eye-to-eye. Ever the eternal optimist, Sheikh Sabah walked hand-in-hand with Prince Salman and Sheikh Tamim, as all three walked into the hall where Arab leaders gathered which hinted that an eventual thawing was possible.

For now, key Arab Gulf countries hedged their bets, as the UAE turned the LAS leadership for the coming year over to Egypt – a clear and unequivocal sign of support to Cairo – as it confronted, in the words of Egyptian President Adly Mansour: “any attempt to stir problems between our people and countries”. The vote of confidence angered Doha and, according to diplomats present at the Summit, “clear divisions [emerged] over what Saudis and Qataris thought” the next steps should be.

According to an unnamed diplomat quoted by the Reuters news agency: “There were heated remarks about Egypt behind closed doors…”

Others apparently voiced equally harsh criticisms, and while Sheikh Tamim and his advisors sought to reduce tensions and find a mutually acceptable way out, the Qatari leader called on Cairo to respect and accept the Egyptian people’s choices. Sheikh Tamim will now face difficult diplomatic challenges as he tries to prevent further divisions within the League and GCC members. 

Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).