There were no surprises in the final communique of the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia. The reality is that the challenges of facing this region are well known – and the calls for solutions are not new. However, the Summit marked an important moment for Saudi Arabia – and with it the Arab world – in framing what its leaders consider the most important issues to address in the region. Palestinian statehood, resolving protracted conflicts, countering terrorism and pushing back against Iran’s expansionist aims in the Middle East. Those four elements are today the biggest security challenges to the region. And without security, little else can be achieved.
The humanitarian toll from the wars and conflicts in a number of Arab countries continues to rise, while the largest number of refugees globally remain in this part of the world. Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah aptly remarked that "heavy clouds continue to hang over our region", calling for action to ensure the Arab world passes "from the sense of despair to one of hope".
Economic and cultural progress in countries like the United Arab Emirates shines a light on what can be achieved with the right combination of visionary leadership, stability and opportunity. However, not enough of those beacons are present today.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz presided over the Summit in the eastern city of Dhahran, which lasted six hours, with seventeen heads of government and state. Before giving the floor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Salman announced that this year's dialogue would be named the "Jerusalem Summit".
The announcement, along with $200 million in funding for Palestine, was a reminder that the issue of Palestine, and the plight of its people, remain central to the Arab world. Without a doubt, the devastation in Syria, Libya, Yemen and beyond has meant that Palestine is no longer given the spotlight at every meeting or discussion, but it holds its place atop the list of regional priorities.
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The occupation of Palestine will continue to pose the greatest threat to any stability in the Middle East. Mr Abbas urged fellow Arab leaders to ensure Palestine's membership of the UN and to reach out to support the people of the occupied territories. Using a famous Arab saying, Mr Abbas said "visiting a prisoner is not visiting his jailer", in reference to the habitual Arab avoidance of visiting Palestine, in order to avoid crossing into Israel. As the Arab world commemorates seventy years since Al Nakba next month and the US prepares to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, concerted Arab action is vital.
Co-ordinated positions will also be crucial to realise King Salman’s repeated calls for an Arab security structure to protect the people and nations of the Arab world. Having a framework that ensures the region’s security is based on mutually beneficial agreements, rather than proxy wars, is the key to stability – and to countering Iran’s expansionist endeavours. Tehran’s actions in the region – most potent in Syria and Yemen – cannot be overlooked. 116 missiles have been fired at Saudi Arabia from Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthis. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has in the past month made clear its intentions, alongside its allies, to seek a resolution to the war in Yemen.
The reality is that Iran has built its military presence – not "influence" but tangible forceful presence – in several Arab countries. Iranian militia men keep Syria stuck in the quagmire of war, along with its Russian ally and the brutal Assad regime. Arab leaders met in Dhahran only days after the Western strikes on Syria.
The renewed calls at the Arab League Summit for a political solution in Syria came with support for an international investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. With the Russian, Iranian and Turkish efforts to lock out the UN and the Arab world from any durable solution, through the Astana process, it is both in the interest of the UN and the Arab League to work together for a lasting solution in Syria.
Many Arabs don’t pay much attention to Arab League Summits, with despondency from the lack of progress across the board. Of course Summits, whether for the Arab League, NATO or the United Nations, can never provide a solution in themselves. And there can be no denying that the Arab grouping is weak. However, that weakness is a reflection of the lack of will among certain member states for true co-operation.
Saudi Arabia, one of the founding members of the Arab League in 1946, has an opportunity to lead the grouping towards a stronger future. With its forceful domestic reform and international clout, the Kingdom is well placed to be the force that reshapes the League at a pivotal moment.