Jobs and free trade focus at Arab summit in Riyadh

Arab leaders pledged to leverage economic cooperation to expand jobs opportunities and boost social welfare benefits for citizens while meeting at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit which closed yesterday in Riyadh.

The UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan during the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which closed yesterday in Riyadh. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
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Leaders pledged to leverage economic cooperation to expand job opportunities and social welfare benefits at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which closed yesterday in Riyadh.

In a final declaration, the gathering of the leaders of 19 countries and the Palestinian Territories vowed to conclude preparations for a greater Arab free-trade zone by the end of the year.

Leaders also endorsed a proposal by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to help increase capital across the Arab world's financial institutions and businesses.

The Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal said his country pledged US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) to back the initiative, saying that the new capital was meant to help banks and firms finance efforts to "meet the growing needs of the goods and services by Arab citizens, and provide them with more job opportunities".

Although this is the third summit of its kind to take place since 2009, when an inaugural meeting was held in Kuwait, the summit's goals took on a new urgency in the wake of unrest that has unseated four governments across the region since 2011.

"The Arab Spring has given these leaders, particularly in the Gulf, a new sense that reforms are needed and economic problems need to be addressed," said Ayham Kamel, a regional analyst at the risk-consulting firm Eurasia Group.

The conference focused particularly on ways that greater regional economic integration could boost investment in the region.

Trade between Arab countries makes up just 10 per cent of total commerce in the region, according to a GCC Chambers Union report released on the eve of the summit.

On the first day of the summit, Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi endorsed calls for a free-trade zone and added that "very little has been done to improve trade between Arab countries".

In the final summit document, countries also pledged to increase cooperation on public health and disease control, food security and the development of alternative energy sources.

Yet despite calls for renewed cooperation, analysts urged caution.

"The famously fractious Arab political system has held economic unification hostage to its own internecine political differences and endless machinations," the GCC minister for economic integration, Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, wrote in the Saudi-run Arabian newspaper Arab News on Monday, though he added that he hoped this time would be different.

In addition to economic matters, leaders' discussions in Riyadh also touched on several regional issues, including funding for the Palestinian Authority and the escalating crisis in Syria.

"Our efforts at all levels fail to achieve what we are looking for, which is to put off the blaze of the crisis in Syria because the [ruling] regime was not responsive to all initiatives at the regional and international levels," said Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, whose country will host a donors meeting this month to raise funds for the war-struck country.

Also on Monday, the Arab League chairman Nabil Elaraby said that the mission of the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had failed to provide even a "flicker of hope" in solving the crisis. He urged Arab leaders to push for a resolution in the UN Security Council that would authorise a monitoring force in the country.

Mr Al Faisal echoed those sentiments yesterday, adding that it was "inconceivable" to imagine a negotiated solution with Damascus.

"Damascus … which has been a city for the longest period of time, is carpet-bombed. How can you conceive of the possibility of a negotiated settlement with somebody who does that to his own country, to his own history, to his own people? It is inconceivable to us", he told a news conference.