Why the Arab League Summit Matters

  • 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.

Nathaniel Kern, Matthew M. Reed

Arab leaders and officials will meet in Baghdad later this month for the annual Arab League summit. The meeting, scheduled for March 27-29, marks the first time since 1990 that Iraq will host the summit, which will allow Iraq to assume the League’s rotating presidency for the following year. Economic ministers from member states will meet on March 27. Foreign ministers will hold meetings on March 28. Although some members are still deciding the level of representation they wish to send, heads of state are expected to meet on March 29. Invitations to the summit were issued in the name of President Jalal Talabani who will host the meeting as head of state. A Kurd will thus be titular head of the Arab League.

This year’s summit comes at a critical time for both Iraq and the Arab League. For Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the summit offers a chance to emphasize his country’s Arab identity and newfound sovereignty following the withdrawal of American troops. Maliki also stands to benefit if he challenges the suspicion that he does nothing without Iran’s permission.

This year’s summit is also important for the Arab League, as it builds credibility after a year of upheaval. In spite of its record as an autocrat’s club, the League laid the groundwork for last year’s UN Resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. Since the last quarter of 2011, it has taken a leading role under Qatar’s leadership in the Syrian crisis as well.

Qatar came to hold the Arab League’s rotating presidency in 2011 by default. The Doha Summit was held in March 2009. Libya hosted the next summit in March 2010, which ostensibly gave Qaddafi the rotating presidency through March of last year, with Baghdad expecting to host the summit that month and assume the presidency afterwards. However, on February 17, 2011 Qaddafi called for the postponement of the Baghdad Summit after civil war erupted in Libya. The League suspended Libya five days later as punishment for Qaddafi’s brutality. The rotating presidency reverted to Qatar and Maliki was forced to wait.

Maliki’s Chance

Many in the Arab League, especially those members from the Gulf Arab states, are still not sure if they can trust Maliki, who spent more than two decades in exile while plotting against Saddam Hussein. Maliki’s leadership in the Islamic Dawa party also troubles some because of its Shia disposition. The party vocally supported the Islamic revolution in Iran after 1979 and later received direct support from Ayatollah Khomeini. Maliki spent much of the 1980s living in Tehran and moved to Damascus in 1990. Serving Dawa as a political officer in Syria, Maliki is believed to have developed close contacts with Hezbollah and agents from both Iran and Syria. Maliki returned to Iraq after the 2003 invasion and became Prime Minister in 2006.

Iran’s isolation and Syria’s civil war present Maliki with a rapidly changing strategic landscape on his eastern and western borders. Adjusting to this reality and re-entering the Arab fold could improve Maliki’s status in the broader Middle East—but misgivings abound. In the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December, Maliki pursued a bitter vendetta against leading Sunni Arab members of his governing coalition, badly alienating public opinion of him in the Gulf Cooperation Council at a time of heightened sectarian tension. Last year, GCC leaders helped scuttle the then-scheduled Arab League summit in Baghdad.

This year’s summit is expected to focus on the challenge posed by Iran and the deteriorating situation and Syria—two issues that Iraq is directly connected to by proximity and history.

Preparations Made

Security concerns remain paramount after Al Qaeda in Iraq launched a series of bombings following the withdrawal of U.S. troops last December. Bombings in January killed 200 Iraqis over three weeks; attacks in late February killed 55, and injured over 200. Small-scale attacks launched against checkpoints, security personnel, and vulnerable Shia targets still happen frequently, although the situation is much improved since the worst years of sectarian strife.

In an interview with the Associated Press on March 13, Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Baydhani, confirmed that thousands of soldiers and policemen were being deployed to protect major avenues and popular sites in Baghdad. Baydhani also suggested that parts of the capital could be locked down during the final day of the summit, when heads of state are due to arrive. In total, reports suggest Baghdad’s security forces will swell to 26,000 later this month, with 4,000 soldiers being redeployed from other provinces in the north and south.

Iraq has also spent more than $100 million refurbishing guest palaces and five-star hotels before delegations arrive. It even built a “Special Presidential Road” from Baghdad International Airport in order to ensure safe and speedy travel. The airport will be closed to commercial traffic from March 26-29 as a precaution against congestion and any security risks. An unnamed Iraqi security source told the Oman Tribune on March 15 that the summit’s venue would be changed from Al Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone to a luxurious palace which borders the airport, thus limiting the exposure of delegations even more.


Qais Al-Azzaoui, Iraq’s representative to the League, told Arab media outlets on March 15 that, “My government has received information that between 12 and 13 Arab leaders will be at the summit.” Names of high officials were not provided. But a spokesman for the Iraqi government told reporters the day before that the Emir of Kuwait plans to attend the summit. If so, his visit to Baghdad would be the first of its kind since before Saddam’s armies invaded Kuwait in 1990. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also plans to attend.

Syria will not be in attendance because it was suspended from the Arab League last year. The Iraqi government has also made clear that the Syrian opposition, as represented by the Syrian National Council, will not be invited. Bahrain is expected to boycott the summit because Iraqi officials and media outlets sharply criticized last year’s crackdown on the country’s Shia majority. Most importantly, the Maliki government did not invite Iran to this year’s Arab League summit, although the Qataris invited them to Doha in 2009.

Renewed Hospitality

Recent developments suggest the importance of this year’s summit is understood by all. On February 21, the Saudi Foreign Ministry notified the Iraqi Government that it wished to assign the Saudi Ambassador to Jordan, Fahd bin Abdul Mohsen Al-Zaid, as a non-resident ambassador of the Kingdom to Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari later called it a “clever step by Saudi Arabia,” which has not had an ambassador to Baghdad since 1990. Oman also announced this month that it would seek the appointment of a non-resident ambassador to Iraq.

Prime Minister Maliki visited Kuwait on March 14. In short order, the two countries announced they had reached multiple agreements addressing the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border and Kuwaiti reparations relating to the Iraqi Airways controversy. For twenty years, Kuwaiti officials have demanded compensation for aircraft and equipment stolen by Saddam’s forces in 1990. Maliki’s visit resulted in a $500 million settlement with Kuwait. Speaking of Iraq’s improved relations with Kuwait, Iraq’s foreign minister told the Washington Post, “We have achieved a breakthrough in the relationship,” only two weeks before the Arab League summit.

Inside Iraq, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently banned demonstrations against the Arab League, even though some countries in attendance—like Saudi Arabia—sent forces into Bahrain last year. Earlier this month, Sadrists in Iraq burned Saudi and Bahrain flags and insulted the monarchs of both countries during massive street protests. According to a spokesman quoted on Sadr’s website, “The leader of the Sadr movement confirmed that the hosting of the Arab leaders by the Iraqi people requires us to uphold perfectly all the requirements of hospitality.”


Foreign Reports is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that writes and distributes timely intelligence reports on political developments in the Middle East relevant to oil markets. Oil companies, governments, and financial institutions rely on Foreign Reports for their insight and analysis on key issues affecting the world generally and the Middle East specifically. The firm was founded in 1956 and the current President is Nathaniel Kern.

  • 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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