Beirut summit shows the region’s fractures

The Arab world’s economic and social potential is hindered by political differences

Supporters of Amal movement hold the party's flag near burning tires in Beirut, Lebanon January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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Beirut this weekend will offer a window onto the current divisions within the Arab world. The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit is supposed to be exclusively economic, drawing business leaders to ponder the state of the region’s economy with heads of state and ministers. Previous summits have seen investment in education and infrastructure across the region.

But this time, its build-up has been dominated by political mudslinging, both within Lebanon itself and further afield. At this pivotal moment, with conflict ongoing in Yemen and Syria, instability plaguing Iraq and Libya, Iran seeking to destabilise the region and Lebanon gripped by political crisis, the Arab world needs unity. This conference should serve as a reminder that the Arab world is greater than the sum of its parts and that nations of this region must collectively dictate their own futures.

There is so much potential in the region, with more than 420 million people, a young population hungry for opportunity and a rich bounty of natural resources. Yet weighty opportunities for progress are being impaired by political wrangling.

It became clear early on that Syria's participation would be a bone of contention. As debate mounts over whether or not to readmit Damascus to the League, following President Bashar Al Assad's reclamation of much of the country, backed by Iran and Russia, the summit's organisers, who have absorbed at least a million Syrian refugees, announced that Syria would not be invited. The resulting anger exposed the fault lines in Lebanon's highly-sectarian political landscape, with the Amal Movement and Hezbollah pushing for Damascus to attend.

Lebanon itself is without a government since elections last May and while its president, Michel Aoun, hopes to use this platform to help avert economic catastrophe, Lebanon's powerful parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, is calling for the conference to be cancelled. With the hosts in disarray, it is worth asking what hope there is for a successful, unifying summit. Meanwhile, a fresh dispute erupted last week over Libya's invitation, relating to the 1987 disappearance of the Amal Movement's founder, Shia cleric Moussa Al Sadr. On Sunday night, the party's supporters ripped down a Libyan flag and hoisted their own.

Suffice to say, the Arab world is divided. But the only path to meaningful progress is through dialogue and a commitment to a shared future, based on real co-operation. Before it even began, this conference was doomed to failure, in the absence of political will to adopt policies based on collective action. Without a genuine belief from the rulers of the region that they have a shared destiny, in support of their peoples’ aspirations, leaves little hope for high-level summits.

Countries across the region, from Iraq and Libya to Syria and Yemen now require reconstruction, societal and economic. Working on supporting countries emerging from war represents a genuine opportunity that is being squandered through disunity. The economic and social improvements due to be discussed in Beirut are sorely needed, but until there is real political will, they will sadly be kept at bay.