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Arab League’s impotent agreement fails to paper over divisions

Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah (C) leaves after a news conference at the closing ceremony of the 25th Arab Summit in Kuwait City, March 26, 2014. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

KUWAIT CITY: Arab leaders, at loggerheads over Arab issues including the situations in Egypt and Syria, offered little evidence of progress after a two-day summit in Kuwait focused on avoiding further divisions.

Gulf opposition to Qatar’s financial backing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist rebels in Syria burst into the open last month when Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed suit.

A declaration read aloud at the end of the summit said only that the 22 members of the Arab League would “pledge to work decisively to put a final end to divisions.”

It was not initially clear whether this even had the status of the communiqués customarily issued after Arab League summits.

“The summit is not in agreement, even though Kuwait really tried,” one Western diplomat told Reuters.

“The Saudis did not want it; they wanted to be very firm with Qatar. There are problems about the Brotherhood, the future of Egypt, Syria. Kuwait did all it could to have a consensus, but the Saudis are very firm.”

The wave of uprisings that started in 2011 has divided the Arab world, deepening sectarian and ideological splits between and within states.

“It seems they didn’t agree on anything except the Palestinian issue. Maybe the message was ‘We don’t want to rock the boat – let’s leave it at that,’” said Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah. “I think they agreed to disagree.”

Arab leaders did announce their “total rejection of the call to consider Israel a Jewish state.”

The Palestinians recognized Israel at the start of the peace process in the early 1990s, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now insisting that they acknowledge Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, a move that would effectively torpedo the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

The summit came three weeks after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – Gulf states that usually keep their arguments behind closed doors – accused Qatar of disregarding an accord not to interfere in fellow Arab states’ internal affairs.

Officials have said the spat was over Qatar’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was ejected from power by the Egyptian military last year after mass protests against the Islamist president, Mohammad Morsi, and has now been outlawed.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are keen to prevent Islamist groups from gaining political influence and undermining their hold on power.

When Morsi was deposed last year, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait stepped in with financial backing for the new military-backed government, while Egypt said it would return funding from Qatar that was transferred while Morsi was in power.

Summit host Kuwait, which has traditionally played the role of Arab peacemaker, offered to mediate in the dispute between the U.S.-allied Gulf states. But participants said Kuwait’s emir, a veteran diplomat, had not attempted to instigate any reconciliation on the sidelines of the main meeting, and might suggest such an effort at a later date instead.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also clashed over Syria, where they have backed different rebel groups that have also fought each other.

The final statement condemned “mass killing committed by the Syrian regime’s forces against the unarmed people” and reiterated the Arab League’s backing for “a political solution to the Syrian crisis in accordance with the Geneva 1 declaration.”

The declaration calls for a transition of power in Syria, which has been suspended from the Arab League. But two rounds of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and rebels, brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, collapsed without a result.

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said Arab states had no alternative to a political agreement.

“We must focus on the political solution,” he told a news conference with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.

Elaraby said the delegates had agreed that the exiled opposition National Coalition would be invited to attend Arab League meetings as an extraordinary measure.

But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, whose country has seen Syria’s Sunni-led rebellion feed a Sunni anti-government insurgency on its own side of the border, made clear that Iraq did not approve of the Coalition being accorded such status.

“Where is their sovereignty? Where is their authority?” Zebari told Reuters. “They are not a state, they don’t even have a government.”

Syria sharply criticized the summit statement, saying nothing would change “the clear decision by the Syrian state to protect its people against terrorism and to face up to it forcefully and firmly,” a reference to rebels seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad.

According to SANA, Syria’s state news agency, the summit’s expression of support for the opposition was made “in order to satisfy the rich Gulf states that impose their will on the Arab League.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 27, 2014, on page 1.

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