Saudi Arabia banks on Arab League summit to test foreign policy realignment

The kingdom is preparing for its year-long presidency

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attending the Arab Foreign Ministers Preparatory Meeting ahead of the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah. SPA
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Senior officials from across the Arab world have been trickling into the coastal city of Jeddah ahead of a much anticipated summit of Arab League leaders on Friday, which is expected to include Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Over the past weeks and months, Saudi Arabia has become more active once again on the foreign stage as it prepares for its year-long Arab League presidency. The kingdom has in that period realigned many of its foreign policy agendas.

“This year’s summit is expected to be one of renewal and change,” Hossam Zaki, Assistant Secretary General of the Arab League, said after the Arab Economic and Social Council on Monday.

“We may witness a renewal and change in the method of dealing between countries.”

Setting the Arab agenda

On Wednesday, foreign ministers from participating Arab countries concluded their final preparatory meetings ahead of the summit on Friday, when Arab leaders will convene at Jeddah's Ritz Carlton hotel.

The foreign ministers' meeting, chaired by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, put the final touches on the draft agenda that is expected to pass during Friday’s summit meeting.

Presidents and heads of state from the 22-member Arab League will approve what they will call the “Arab action plan for 2023”, which will lay out regional priorities and how they plan to tackle them over the coming year.

Four preparatory committee meetings were held on Wednesday, when previous host Algeria formally handed over the presidency of the Arab League summit to Saudi Arabia.

The meetings included a quartet committee concerned with following up regional development with Iran and ways to address its interference in the affairs of Arab countries, as well as a meeting to address similar interference by Turkey. An open-ended meeting on efforts to support Palestine was also held.

After receiving the presidency from Algeria, Prince Faisal said in an opening address that the world was going through great challenges that required a united front.

“We have to devise new mechanisms to meet the challenges facing our countries and we need to work jointly for the elevation of the Arab peoples,” Prince Faisal told his counterparts.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also welcomed the Syrian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

“I hope that Syria’s regaining of its seat at the league will allow for the ending of its crisis and allow it’s full and active participation in the Arab world,” Mr Aboul Gheit said as he addressed the Syrian foreign ministers and Arab officials.

Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (C) speaks to reporters after attending the Arab Foreign Ministers Preparatory Meeting ahead of the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah on May 17, 2023. AFP

Speaking ahead of the summit, Mr Aboul Gheit told The National during a working visit to Abu Dhabi that the meetings in Jeddah were taking place amid positive developments in the region.

“I imagine that it being held in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and with the vitality of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that the summit’s presence and agenda, I expect, will be a very large one that will represent an addition to the Arab Summit,” Mr Aboul Gheit said.

The Arab League's chief also spoke about the recent developments in the region, especially the Iranian and Turkish rapprochement with their Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia.

“We have seen positive indications from Iran and Turkey to stop their interference in the affairs of Arab countries. This will open up more co-operation and joint work and eventually lead to more regional stability and security,” he said.

The push by Riyadh to thaw ties is part of its policy comes a month after it agreed to a deal to revive diplomatic relations with its regional rival Iran.

Riyadh's willingness to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, heal the kingdom's rift with Iran and achieve peace in Yemen are all part of efforts to increase regional security and stability.

Syria’s presence at the summit

A source at the Saudi Foreign Ministry confirmed that President Al Assad will accept King Salman’s invitation to attend the summit in Jeddah on Friday.

Accompanying him at the Syrian delegation table will be Mr Mekdad, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Bassam Al Sabbagh, Assistant Foreign and Expatriates Minister Ayman Sousan, Syrian Presidential Adviser Buthaina Shaaban and Special Adviser to the Syrian Presidency Luna Al Shibl.

It will be the Syrian President's first time at an Arab League summit since a 2010 meeting in Libya.

Earlier this month, the pan-Arab body officially welcomed Syria's government back to the Arab fold.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan Nayef bin Bandar Al Sudairi hands Syrian President Al Assad an invitation to attend the 32nd session of the Arab League on May 19. Photo: Saudi Embassy in Jordan

“This is a new opportunity for us to tell our Arab brothers that we do not look to the past, but towards the future,” Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters in Jeddah, on landing in the kingdom on Monday evening.

“There are many challenges that we must discuss and mobilise to confront, including the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

In May, Syria opened regional talks with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt in Amman as part of an Arab-led initiative to resolve the Syrian conflict.

Critics of the rapprochement with Damascus have said economic investments will probably be limited until Syria reaches a political solution to the conflict and resolves a host of other pressing issues, including the case of Syrian refugees, the Captagon drug trade and the presence of proxy militant groups within Syrian territory.

The motivation to allow the Assad regime back into the Arab fold has been going on since 2018 when the UAE began backing the view that resolving the Syrian conflict without the Syrian government’s participation was not yielding results.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the preparatory meeting in Jeddah on Wednesday, Mr Mekdad told reporters that Syria was serious about the return of refugees.

“We want all refugees to return to their homeland,” he said.

“The understanding is that ending the conflict will lead to more stability, and more stability would lead to more state-to-state types of relationships. So, the whole agenda with Syria is to start from the beginning, being the recognition of Syrian statehood,” Mohammed Baharoon, Director General of the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre, told The National.

“The same way has been applied with the engagement with Iraq, Sudan and, more recently, Yemen.”

The UAE reestablished ties with Syria in 2018 and has been leading the recent charge to reintegrate Damascus. It has also invited Mr Al Assad to attend the UN climate summit in Dubai later this year.

The continuing conflict in Sudan will also be high on the summit’s agenda.

A senior Saudi diplomat said last week that Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, one of two generals at the heart of the conflict, had been invited to represent Sudan, but that it was unclear who would attend. No official confirmation of an invitation by the Saudi authorities was made clear by Wednesday.

Representatives of Gen Burhan and of his adversary, paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have been in Jeddah for more than a week for talks set up by Saudi Arabia and the US.

Updated: May 17, 2023, 3:54 PM