Arab League leaders meet in Algiers for their first summit since 2019

Immediate problems such as food shortages are on the agenda, but the focus remains on enduring issues

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Arab leaders began their first summit in three years in Algeria on Tuesday, facing the daunting challenge of finding common ground on diverse issues including food shortages, climate change, the Palestinian question and foreign meddling in their nations' domestic affairs.

The 22-member, Cairo-based Arab League last held a summit in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

"Whether we like it or not, the Arab region is placed in the eye of so many crises," lamented Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit in an address to the summit's opening session.

The region, he explained, was central to global energy supplies and their prices, a primary victim of climate change and water scarcity, and one whose food security faces a "grave danger".

"Our Arab states are in a dire need for a comprehensive strategy to deal with this state of extended crisis," he said.

As with most of the previous 30 Arab summits, there is little prospect that this one will produce a breakthrough on any of the issues bedevilling the region for years, and in some cases decades.

These range from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the turmoil in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the perceived interference in Arab affairs by Iran and Turkey, two Muslim but non-Arab nations.

"It's our duty, more than at any time in the past, to put out those burning Arab crises and not just reduce their gravity or learn to live with them," said Mr Aboul Gheit.

Hossam Zaki, the Arab League's assistant secretary general, said there were differences among the leaders in Algiers on how to phrase the summit's proposed resolution on the question of foreign meddling.

“We have contained those differences in a technical and professional way,” said Mr Zaki, who explained that the resolution would renew the participants' previous agreement to condemn Iranian and Turkish meddling.

“But this does not mean that there is complete consensus. Some countries have different perspectives,” he retorted.

Algeria chose the date of the summit to coincide with the 68th anniversary of the start of its War of Liberation from French rule, giving the two-day meeting added significance and bolstering its image as a champion of Arab causes.

Also addressing the summit's opening session, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune repeated the long-standing call for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution, with the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

He also issued a rallying cry for Arabs to step up their efforts to help the cause of the Palestinians.

"I am looking forward to the creation of an Arab commission of co-ordination and communication to support the Palestinian cause," he said. "Algeria stands ready to call for an extraordinary meeting of the UN General Assembly to accord the state of Palestine full UN membership."

The summit comes at a time when Algeria’s large oil and gas exports to western Europe have boosted the country’s international standing, given the energy crisis created by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In the same vein, the summit will be preoccupied with the effect of the war on the economies of several league members, like Egypt, Lebanon and Sudan, where soaring food and fuel prices have compounded the suffering of their populations.

Algeria initially wanted the summit to witness the return of Syria to the Arab League, 11 years after its membership was suspended to protest against its brutal handling of its 2011 uprising. Syria said in September it would not attend the summit, arguing that it did not want its readmission to the league to become a divisive issue.

Despite its location thousands of kilometres from Israel, Algeria regards itself as a front-line state. It views Israel as an enemy, takes exception to the normalisation of relations between Arab nations and Israel and vigorously champions the cause of the Palestinians. Its forces joined the Egyptian army in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Algerian women in traditional costume during a parade held on the eve of the 31st Arab summit in Algiers. EPA

Algeria has billed the summit as one for "closing ranks" and the "Palestine summit", explaining that the focus would be on the intractable and decades-old Palestinian question.

Last month, Algeria hosted reconciliation talks between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the occupied West Bank, and the militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The deal is the latest in a long series of similar agreements brokered by Arab nations that have proven ineffective. But its announcement by Algeria in the days ahead of the summit was meant to signal its return to Middle East diplomacy as a key player.

“Palestine is burning under the feet of the occupiers,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a letter to the Arab leaders meeting in Algiers.

He called on them to support Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and “condemn the occupation and its crimes and work for its political and diplomatic isolation.”

Arab leaders will be monitoring the results of Israel’s parliamentary election on Tuesday to see if former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist allies return to power.

The vote comes at a time of heightened tensions in the West Bank, where Israel’s security forces conduct nightly raids in search of Palestinian militants and dozens of Palestinians have also been killed by the Israelis in recent weeks.

Only 13 of the Arab League's 22 members are represented in Algiers by heads of state, according to Mr Zaki. The rest are prime ministers, foreign ministers and crown princes.

Tensions between neighbours Algeria and Morocco have surfaced in Algiers. Algiers severed diplomatic ties with its North African neighbour last year.

The enduring feud between the two countries is rooted in a dispute over the Western Sahara, a territory annexed by Morocco in 1975.

Sahrawis from the Polisario Front are backed by Algeria and have sought independence for decades.

King Hassan VI of Morocco has reversed his decision to attend the summit, staying away in response to an intensely publicised diplomatic tiff with the host nation that erupted during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers on Monday.

Morocco's foreign minister told a television interview on Tuesday that a map of Morocco shown by a state-controlled, Algerian television network "compromised" his country's territorial integrity, an apparent reference to placing the Sahara outside Morocco's borders.

Speaking in a television interview, the minister, Nasser Bourita, suggested that the error was intentional. "Why there was no doctoring with the maps, for example, of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia or Jordan?" he asked rhetorically.

He said another perceived slight was the decision by Algerian authorities to deport 40 of Morocco's 52-strong official media delegation.

"They arrived and were sent back to Morocco without leaving the airport." Mr Zaki said the Arab League tried to contain the diplomatic quarrel between Morocco and Algeria and lamented the decision by the Moroccan monarch to stay away from the summit.

"We had hoped that his majesty would be present, but that's his decision,” said Mr Zaki.

“We wanted to soften relations between the two nations, but we remain hopeful that we can reach a point where the two countries can regain a suitable level of dialogue,” he told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiyah television network in an interview.

Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a message to the summit saying Moscow is committed to co-operation with the Arab League to boost “security.”

He called for conflicts to “be resolved on the basis of generally accepted international law and a commitment to strict respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries.”

Most Arab states have taken a neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine war, although the Russian invasion of its neighbour in February brought about many hardships they now have to endure.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres arrived in Algiers on Tuesday to attend the summit as an observer. Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev was also in Algiers on Tuesday as a guest of honour and as the current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Mostafa Haroon is a special correspondent for The National in Algiers. Hamza Hendawi reported from Cairo

Updated: November 01, 2022, 9:39 PM
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