Divided views as Arab-Islamic world demands end to Israel-Gaza war

Joint summit in Riyadh conveyed important messages to western powers, analysts say

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on the sidelines of the summit. Reuters
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While Arab and Muslim leaders condemned Israel’s "barbaric" actions in Gaza and demanded an end to the war, their meetings have again highlighted divided opinion over how to respond to the situation.

However, analysts say Saturday's joint summit in the Riyadh of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation managed to convey significant messages and warnings to Israel, the United States and western powers.

“I think that the consensus was that this is really more about symbolism, narrative and diplomacy," Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian, who researches his country’s foreign policy regarding Israel, told The National.

"Arab states are making their efforts confined within the realms of diplomacy and they're going to use all the aspects they have in diplomacy to try to do that."

In its final resolution passed on Saturday after three days of closed-door negotiations, 57 countries signed a final document which called for an arms embargo against Israel, the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israel on what are seen as war crimes, and the formulation of an Arab-Islamic committee to oversee further diplomatic efforts to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza.

Analysts were not surprised by the outcome, warning that the main message from the summit was that “the clock in the region is ticking backwards".

“It sends three messages," said Mohammed Baharoon, director general of the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre.

"To Israel, the window for peace and regional integration is closing fast, they risk going back in time to 1948.

"To the Americans, their role as a security provider in the region is reversing so fast that they are risking to be in the same position as France in West Africa.

"And to the West, that the proverbial international community is facing grave challenges and we could slip back to the pre-League of Nations era," said Mr Baharoon.

Calls for punitive actions

Among the numerous leaders addressing the summit, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, whose countries recently re-established ties with Saudi Arabia, advocated more "punitive" measures against Israel.

Iran is the main regional backer of Hamas, which has been engaged in the war since October 7 when it launched unprecedented attacks into Israel that killed about 1,400 people, mainly civilians.

Israel responded by hammering the Gaza Strip with air strikes, killing more than 11,000 people to date, including at least 4,500 children, followed by a large-scale land offensive.

Iran has warned of a broader regional confrontation, while its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen and Syria have launched attacks on Israeli and US targets.

Mr Al Assad, a staunch ally of Iran, said a lack of concrete punitive measures against Israel would render the summit ineffective.

"If we do not have real tools for pressure, then any step we take or speech we give will have no meaning," he said.

Syria was welcomed back into the Arab fold earlier this year after an extended isolation due to the country's civil war that erupted in 2011.

The country has historically served as a political hub for Hamas leadership.

Mr Al Assad said no Middle Eastern country should engage in any "political process" with Israel until a lasting ceasefire is in place.

Mr Raisi called for all countries to arm Palestinians if Israel’s attacks persist.

“Muslim countries should aid the Palestinian people by arming them” against Israel, he said.

The National reports from Riyadh as Arab leaders gather to discuss Israel-Gaza war

The National reports from Riyadh as Arab leaders gather to discuss Israel-Gaza war

Ghassan Ebrahim, editor-in-chief of Global Arab Network, told The National that such calls for extreme measures had been expected.

“Unfortunately, Iran and their proxies in the region are disconnected from reality," he said. "They believe that sorting escalation by use of retaliatory escalation is the only solution.

"Fortunately, a majority of Arab states don’t believe that to be the case."

Mr Raisi’s visit to Riyadh was the first time an Iranian President has set foot in Saudi Arabia since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended an OIC meeting in the kingdom in 2012.

An earlier draft of the final resolution seen by The National on Friday contained a clause suggesting, rather than explicitly demanding, that Arab states take economic action such as cutting off air routes for Israel, as well as possible “economic actions to deter Israel’s aggressions".

That version of the resolution was voted for by only 11 of the Arab League's 22 member states and was not ratified after four countries opposed it while the rest abstained.

“Oil cannot and will not be ever used as a political weapon," said Saudi analyst Ali Shihabi on X, formerly Twitter, responding to suggestions that energy-rich nations should contemplate leveraging the hydrocarbon sector as a means of exerting pressure.

"It is the lifeblood of oil-producing economies and has to be seen as a reliable commodity by users.

"Any attempt to do otherwise will only accelerate consumer moves away from oil,” he added.

In their speeches, strong statements from several Arab leaders decried the US and western world’s “double standards” on Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister, said Israel was getting away with breaching international law.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the summit: "We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe that proves the failure of the [UN] Security Council and the international community to put an end to the flagrant Israeli violations of international laws."

The final declaration on Saturday rejected Israeli claims of acting in "self-defence" and demanded the UN Security Council adopt "a decisive and binding resolution" to halt Israel's "aggression".

The UAE, represented by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Vice President and Minister of the Presidential Court, said it “supports all diplomatic moves to protect civilians in Gaza and achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people for stability and peace”.

As the Arab leaders were gathering in Riyadh, fighting intensified overnight into Saturday near Gaza city's overcrowded hospitals, where at least one baby died in an incubator after Gaza's largest hospital lost power, and a patient in intensive care was killed by Israeli shelling, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

Shifting political narratives

Israel’s war on Gaza has also upended traditional Middle East alliances, as Riyadh has engaged more closely with Iran, pushed back against US pressure and temporarily suspended plans to establish relations with Israel.

Had there been a suspension of diplomatic ties, or reduction of relations, that would have generated more pressure on Israel and the United States
Aziz Alghashian, Saudi analyst

The future governing of Gaza featured prominently in the discussions in Riyadh, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saying his Fatah-led Palestinian Authority would consider administering the Gaza Strip if it brought about a permanent ceasefire and an enduring, comprehensive political solution.

But leaders at the summit refrained from discussing public statements regarding potential future scenarios for Gaza until Israel halted its war operations completely.

“The only talk of a future for Gaza is an immediate ceasefire,” Prince Faisal said.

Mr Alghashian said: “Had there been a suspension of diplomatic ties, or reduction of relations, that would have generated more pressure on Israel and the United States. But that wasn't there, yet."

Updated: November 26, 2023, 8:36 AM