Arab leaders including Syrian President Bashar Al Assad arrived in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah on Thursday for what is being billed as the most significant Arab League summit in its recent history.
Mr Al Assad, whose country was readmitted to the league after a 12-year absence, arrived from Damascus on Thursday evening.
He was greeted by Prince Badr bin Sultan, deputy governor of Makkah and the Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
The Syrian President is expected to give an address at the summit at the Ritz Carlton in Jeddah.
The Syrian Presidency confirmed on Twitter on Thursday afternoon that Mr Al Assad would head to Jeddah to participate in the summit on Friday.
When asked by The National to confirm Mr Al Assad would be attending, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad previously said: “Syria would never miss an important summit.”
Preparing for a ‘summit of renewal’
Throughout Jeddah, the flags of the 22 member states that make up the Arab League have adorned major roads.
Before the arrival of major Arab leaders on Thursday, increased security could be seen across the city, especially on the roads leading to the Ritz Carlton hotel, where the summit will convene on Friday afternoon.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was the first to touch down in Jeddah before the summit.
Other leaders to arrive on Thursday included Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Jeddah authorities announced the King Abdulaziz Road, which leads from the King Abdulaziz International Airport to the Ritz Carlton, would be closed for 12 hours from 10am each day on Thursday and Friday amid security precautions as the heads of states arrived for the summit.
Ahead of the arrivals, several preparatory meetings were concluded on Wednesday on the economic, social and foreign ministerial levels.
Foreign ministers, including Mr Mekdad, also met during a preparatory meeting on Wednesday, during which the presidency of the league was passed from Algeria to Saudi Arabia.
After opening speeches from Mr Aboul Gheit, Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf and Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan, a closed session was held between the delegations.
It lasted less than 30 minutes as consensus was reached on all points over the draft Arab action plan for 2023, which will be certified on Friday.
Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the Arab League, said after the meeting on Friday that all draft resolutions to be presented to the summit had been approved.
“The preparatory session was dominated by a positive atmosphere. The foreign ministers decided to approve all the draft resolutions ahead of Friday’s summit,” Mr Zaki said.
“One of the most prominent projects on which decisions were taken are developments in the situation in Sudan and several decisions on the Palestinian issue, as is usual to deal with the current unfortunate situation.”
A member of Bahrain’s delegation at the meeting on Wednesday also confirmed that the draft resolutions set to pass on Friday faced no major objections from the member states.
Beyond the rapprochement with the Assad government, the summit in Jeddah is expected to devote discussion to two conflicts – the month-long war between two generals in Sudan and the civil war in Yemen.
Focus on Syria
Despite recent foreign policy realignments in the region, the summit on Friday will undoubtedly be focused on the Syrian file.
On Wednesday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the region was among the priorities the Lebanese state was working on, in co-ordination with Syria and its Arab neighbours.
Mr Bou Habib denied there would be any forced return of displaced Syrians from Lebanon, a key sticking point in talks with the Assad government following its return to the Arab fold.
The Arab League summit is taking place in the same city where representatives of the two Sudanese camps have been locked for a week and a half in negotiations brokered by Saudi and US officials.
A source from the Saudi Foreign Ministry confirmed that Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan would not attend the summit on Friday but would instead send a representative.
The push by Riyadh to thaw ties 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.
“What we’re witnessing at this Arab League is Saudi Arabia’s keenness to recalibrate policies after more than a decade of what the status quo agenda has yielded in terms of conflicts and instability,” said Saudi political analyst Mohammed Al Saad.
“This summit would be a litmus test for the year ahead under Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the Arab League and much is expected on Friday, to be the beginning of the renewal and change in the region as has been pledged.”