What they won’t admit at the Arab Summit

Don’t expect Arab leaders to take responsibility for the dreadful situation they helped bring about.

A general view of delegates attending the closing session of the Arab League summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt [EPA]
A general view of delegates attending the closing session of the Arab League summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt [EPA]

Rhetoric and reality

The Arab League Summit has convened just as the region reached the summit of instability, division and violence as a result of the actions of many of those and other Middle Eastern leaders. But don’t expect Arab leaders to take responsibility for the dreadful situation they helped bring about – absolutely not.

Instead, much of the blame was directed at “external” forces and the extremists and the terrorists who, in the words of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, exploited certain “shortcomings” of Arab governance (i.e. repressive authoritarianism) to try and gain control.

Sisi: Arab nations to create joint military force

It’s no wonder the leaders went on to speak of the importance of unity, stability and dialogue, while emphasizing mostly military solutions.

Arab military force

The one concrete conclusion of the Arab Summit is the call for the establishment of a joint Arab military force even though the whole region is suffering from an excess of violence that’s affecting and even destroying the lives of countless people.

How will this force be assembled; who will finance it and what are its objectives is not clear in the absence of any blueprints. But what is clear is that there’s no precedence for such a joint force, and the Arabs don’t have the means, experience or expertise to put in motion the kind of sophisticated logistical and operational plans that allow different militaries to work jointly.

And since this force is not expected to confront Israel or Iran on the battlefield, one assumes it’s meant to fight the kind of asymmetrical wars as in Syria or more specifically, Yemen where the Saudis intervened, or Libya where Egypt is so keen to intervene. That is sure to plunge the region into an ever more protracted war.

‘Happy Yemen’

Although violence continues to spiral out of control in Syria, Iraq and Libya, it’s Yemen that has dominated the Arab League discussion following the Saudi military intervention there. Long known in the Arab world as “al-Yemen as-Said” – or Happy Yemen – the country is a terribly unhappy place as it’s transformed, once again, into a battlefield for external and internal forces.

Long known in the Arab world as 'al-Yemen as-Said' - or Happy Yemen - the country is a terribly unhappy place as it's transformed, once again, into a battlefield for external and internal forces.


The Arab Summit has lent its support to Saudi Arabia in its declared effort to stem the tide of the Iranian supported Houthis that endanger national Saudi and Arab security, according to the League.

But how will the Arab nations react if or when the situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate and the Houthis, supported by Tehran, put up major resistance?

Well, already, Iran’s allies in Iraq and elsewhere have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention in Yemen or other nations, which is rather puzzling, considering the present Iraqi government has welcomed military intervention in its own country.

It remains to be seen whether the League’s attempt at establishing a new Arab order passes the test of Yemen.

Saudi gamble

The fact that it’s Saudi Arabia that has shaken off the passivity and defensiveness of the Arabs vis-a-vis Iran’s rising influence is both telling and surprising.

It’s telling because of the way it exposed what has been known for so many years, notably that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in a Middle Eastern cold war that involved supporting clients and allies in proxy conflicts and wars that destabilised the region.

And it’s surprising because the Saudis, who generally outsourced their missions to others, including to the Americans, are for the first time leading a major war with unknown consequences to national and regional stability.

This Saudi gamble seems to turn the tables against Iran, at least in its initial phase, and it has put Riyadh in a much more comfortable strategic position than it was in only a few days ago when the Iranians were gaining all but direct control in Yemen and access to the Red Sea.

Iranian overreach

Most of those present at the Arab League Summit believe that Iran has been overzealous in the way it has intervened in various Arab nations including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and more recently, Yemen. Tehran has been gaining strategic confidence and regional momentum thanks to George W Bush’s failures in Iraq since 2003, and Barack Obama’s attempt at reaching a nuclear deal and eventually political rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

But the Ayatollahs’ overreach in Iraq and Syria and their boasting of a new Iranian dominated regional order have sent shock waves across the region and united both Arab and non-Arab states against them. Turkish and Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen is sure to weaken Iran’s position in the region regardless of whether it reaches a deal with the United States. Well, at least for the time being.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin [AP]
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin [AP]

Although quite pragmatic, it remains to be seen how the Iranians will react to the Saudi intervention over the longer run.

The missing elephant

Unlike most other summits over the last half a century, when the Arabs obsessed about the United States, Washington was largely missing from the deliberations and plans of the summiteers.

Indeed, much of the discussion about Yemen, Libya and Syria were driven by the lack of US dependability and the need for the Arabs to act on their own first, rather than wait for US initiatives.

For the first time since their independence, the Arabs are acting not as friends or foes of the United States, and are not taking instructions from Washington regarding their next moves. Instead, the US seems to lend a hand to those who act on their own and in coordination with others to establish order or stability that is conducive to US interests. This might encourage the Iranians to act more vigorously against ISIL in Iraq, nudge the Egyptians to act in Libya, and encourage the Turks to act in Syria.

Forgotten Palestine

Despite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s terribly pessimistic review of the situation in Palestine and his emphasis on losing Jerusalem for good, the summiteers have repeated the same tired cliches about Palestine and peace as if either are possible to attain in negotiations with the Netanyahu government (with the exception of the Emir of Qatar or proposed abandoning unworkable initiatives in return for serious international pressure to lift the siege on Gaza and force Israel to recognise the Palestinian State).

Palestine that has long spearheaded all Arab summits has taken the backseat because of the Arabs’ preoccupation with countless disasters and challenges on their hands. But more importantly, because of their incompetence and lack of seriousness towards Palestine. And of course towards Syria.

Invisible Arabs

As the summiteers focused their attention on the mostly self-generated regional instability and violence, they did pay some lip service to the important issues of everyday Arabs, including development, justice and freedoms.

Indeed, much of the lofty talk about an Arab military force, combatting terrorism and attaining stability is the antithesis to the peoples’ yearning for liberty, dignity and human rights.

Alas, by emphasizing the security issues, most of those present at the Arab League Summit were mostly eager to turn the page on the Arab Spring and its calls for democracy.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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