Arab League Summit Suffers Low Turn Out

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Views from the Region

This year’s Arab League summit met in Mauritania as the region continues to struggle with instability and war in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. The expectations for this year’s summit were already low, but the absence of the Egyptian and Saudi Arabian heads-of-state, among others, ensured that the meeting of Arab leaders would be even less ambitious than in the past. The main headline to come out of the summit — cut down from two days to one — was the Palestinian delegation urging the League to back a lawsuit to hold the British government legally responsible for the Balfour Declaration, a legal long shot greeted with skepticism, to say the least.

The Egyptian news site Middle East Online summarized the pared-down summit: “A 22-nation Arab summit tackling the region’s crises, despite splits over Iran and Turkey, was cut back to a single day Monday due to the absence of the heavyweight leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stayed at home because of ‘a busy domestic schedule’ while Saudi King Salman’s no-show was due to ‘health reasons’, an Arab League source told AFP….The summit, originally scheduled for two full days, is to focus primarily on security and on plans for a joint force across a region fraught with tension, notably in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and the Palestinian territories….Arab foreign ministers meeting ahead of the summit on Saturday urged a ‘definitive solution’ to the conflict and welcomed a French and Egyptian initiative to help revive dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”

Al Ahram’s Hassan Abou Taleb sounds a critical note over the disunity among Arab countries, lamenting that the Arab League has proven unable to address the current threats to stability: “The Arab reality is marked by urgency; it lacks a compass, and is being infiltrated from all sides. The urgency of Arabs does not need further explanation. Everything around us leads to this description, starting with the loss of key Arab countries that are now merely ink on a map, and ending with the lack of minimum consensus on Arab priorities in terms of action needed to achieve goals. There is continued Arab ambiguity in defining terrorism, terrorists and what should be done in solidarity and collectively to face this monster, which is like a chameleon, and strikes everywhere. However, there is no Arab mechanism for confrontation that Arab countries abide by properly, and thus the status quo continues….Under such Arab circumstances, the summit in Mauritania was important. It was held in the greater Arab Maghreb but it did not change anything in the reality of Arabs. No summit will make any change until Arabs themselves change and end their haste first.”

In an op-ed for Daily News Egypt, Nadine Awadalla lays out the initial expectations for the summit, concluding that the Arab League member states had once again fallen short of those expectations by issuing vague statements on matters that needed immediate solutions: “In spite of the ongoing political turmoil facing Arab countries, expectations were so high ahead of the 27th Arab League Summit in Mauritania that it was dubbed the ‘summit of hope’….there was a marked difference in the prioritization of these issues and conflicts among the Arab leaders, as well as with the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s stance as relayed by UN special envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Al-Sheikh. The members of the league also stressed the importance of strengthening cooperation and trade ties between each other, but were using characteristically vague diction that did not propose a timeline or indicate the specific outcomes they hoped to achieve.”

Jordan Times’ Rami Khouri is even more damning in his assessment of the summit, characterizing it as “frivolous” and “lacking credibility”: “The sad spectacle of the truncated ‘summit’ of Arab leaders in the Mauritanian capital Monday was even more embarrassing than usual for this recurring event. It highlights again the often-frivolous behavior of Arab leaderships, and the massive challenges they are failing to meet. The most troubling aspect of the event was its affirming again the capacity of Arab leaderships to ignore the actual, home-grown, causes of their countries’ problems, and instead to repeat clichés about fighting terrorism and seeking peace — two areas in which the Arab world has failed to make any headway….Such calls totally lack credibility, because it should have become obvious by now, including to incumbent Arab officials, that during the past two generations the main reason for state fragmentation, sectarianism, tribalism and now terror, across much of the Arab world has been government mismanagement of state resources and national development, alongside corruption and the sustained absence of democratic participation by citizens.”

In a recent editorial, the weekly Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram laid out a number of recommendations for the future of the  Arab League:  “those eager to promote the survival of the Arab League as a framework for collective Arab action believe that the ability of this organization to perform its desired role effectively is contingent on a number of factors….Measures to implement all the resolutions adopted in Arab League summits to promote collective Arab action in the realms of politics, the economy, defense, education, the media and social affairs….Egypt’s resumption of its effective leadership role, at the level of the region and its causes and at the level of the Arab League itself…. The development of an Arab people’s system in tandem with the official system….The future of nations and peoples, let alone regional and international organizations, is not determined by wishes, however sincere, or by slogans, however dazzling. It is achieved by diligent and persistent work, at all levels, and through communication, combined efforts and cumulative experience among all dynamic forces in the Arab region.”

Ironically, it was left to the Saudi daily Arab News to sing the praises of the Arab League’s importance, even though it was the absence of the Saudi monarch, among other things, that caused the summit to be shortened: “As the snake heads of the terrorists are being cut off in Iraq and Syria, their siblings are striking in Europe….At the Arab summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott this week, there was a complete agreement that the Arab world should continue to play a leading role in the international war on terror….There was one point at the summit, which was very well made. A just settlement for the Palestinians should not be forgotten in the horrified reaction to Daesh’s European crimes. In fact, Daesh leaders care no more about Palestinians than they do for the communities they have overrun. Their cry that Israel should accept a sovereign Palestinian state is completely false. But it has been an important recruiting drum.”

The summit’s take on the Palestinian question took a strange turn as Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki urged the Arab League to support litigation against Great Britain to seek recompense for the 1917 Balfour Declaration. The Palestinian news site Maan News reports: “Al-Maliki apologized on behalf of Abbas, who couldn’t attend the summit due to his brother’s recent death, before urging Arab countries to ‘help us bring a suit against the British government over the ominous Balfour Declaration which resulted in the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinian people.’…In February, the Palestine Liberation Organization said in a statement that Great Britain bore “the primary responsibility” for ‘historical injustice in Palestine’.”

According to a Naharnet report, this legal path is considered a “long shot” at best, a statement which in many ways is an apt description of the Arab League summit: “A Palestinian plan to sue Britain over a 1917 declaration backing a Jewish homeland in Palestine could help rally supporters, but has little chance of success, legal analysts say. The Palestinian government on Monday announced it was seeking legal action against Britain for the nearly century-old Balfour Declaration, drawing scorn from Israel. The 1917 declaration by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour said the British government “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. ‘It was a major step towards the eventual establishment of the state of Israel’….Asked by AFP to clarify what the claim would be and to which court it would be submitted, a spokesman for the Palestinian foreign ministry said that would soon be decided. If seeking reparations, such a court case would be rare. Eric Posner, law professor at the University of Chicago and author of a paper on reparations in international law, said he couldn’t think of an example of international courts being used in this manner. In most cases, he said, reparations are given by governments that wish to atone for previous acts.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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