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Summit takes place at time of deep rifts – Arab foreign ministers approve summit resolutions

A general view of the opening session of the Arab League foreign ministers meeting in preparation for the Arab Summit

A general view of the opening session of the Arab League foreign ministers meeting in preparation for the Arab Summit

KUWAIT: An Arab League summit opens in Kuwait tomorrow at a time of deepening rifts between its member states and without any end in sight to the Syrian conflict. With Doha in the eye of the storm, the region's leaders are expected to discuss the row which has pitted Qatar against Gulf partners Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Egypt. They will hold a special session to discuss "clearing the atmosphere and compromises," said the Arab League assistant secretary general for political affairs Fadhel Jawad.

Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah and Arab League chief Nabil Al-Arabi confirmed at a joint press conference Thursday that the differences will be debated but declined to reveal any specific mediation efforts. Sheikh Sabah acknowledged that the summit was being held under "highly delicate" circumstances and that Arab countries were faced with serious challenges. In separate remarks, Al-Arabi agreed at a news conference that the summit's decisions would be affected by "differences".

Qatar's perceived support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood lies at the core of the dispute, over which Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama have recalled their ambassadors from Doha in an unprecedented move between Gulf states. Kuwaiti political analyst Dhafer Al-Ajmi said the host country's ruler HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah was likely to use his skills as a mediator. "Internal Arab disputes are overshadowing the summit but I am optimistic that Kuwait and its emir could achieve a breakthrough," said Ajmi, who heads the Gulf Monitoring Group, an independent research centre.

Yesterday, Arab League foreign ministers said they agreed on the draft resolutions for the summit. "There was no tension whatsoever in the meeting. Host country Kuwait in fact has smoothed relations," Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters at the end of a one-day meeting. "The subject of the ... withdrawal of ambassadors was never mentioned at all," he said. "There were no controversial issues or problems, and the atmosphere was very positive," he said, declining to answer if efforts will be made to heal the rifts.

Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, however, said: "Not all issues are discussed in the meeting hall. Some issues are debated on the sidelines behind the scenes." Morocco's minister of state for foreign affairs, Salahuddin Mezwar, said the ministers discussed efforts to combat international terrorism and ways to limit its impact on Arab countries. But he said Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood or whether to approve a new inter-Arab counter-terrorism pact were not discussed at the meeting.

Zebari said all draft resolutions were unanimously approved by Arab foreign ministers. A draft resolution on the Syrian conflict, which entered its fourth year last week, urges the UN Security Council to shoulder its responsibility after the failure of Geneva peace talks between the regime and the opposition. On the Palestinian issue, the ministers called on Arab states to provide $100 million in financial aid to the Palestinian Authority every month and rejected recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The ministers approved the basic charter of a Bahrain-based Arab human rights tribunal and recommended that the next summit be held in Egypt.

The summit will also debate a new counter-terrorism pact tabled by Egypt, Jawad said, amid reports that Cairo and Riyadh could press for the Muslim Brotherhood to be declared a terrorist organisation. Another top item will be the Arab Spring and the deadly fallout from the uprisings which have rocked the region over the past three years. "We are experiencing huge unrest in most parts of the Arab world... and it's time that we discussed the future," Arabi said. The revolts have resulted in the ouster of three presidents, the killing of a fourth head of state and triggered a devastating civil war in Syria. The democratic reforms demanded on the Arab street are not expected to figure on the agenda. "Most regimes have already branded the Arab Spring as chaos and terrorism," Ajmi said.

Kuwait said 13 heads of state have confirmed they are attending the annual summit, this year being held under the slogan of "solidarity for a better future". The three-year-old Syrian conflict, which has cost more than 140,000 lives, will figure prominently at the summit, Arab League officials said, following the failure of two rounds of peace talks in Geneva. Arabi said that although the last Arab summit held in Doha in March 2013 decided to allocate Syria's vacant seat to the opposition National Coalition, steps remain to comply with League regulations. "We are holding consultations with the National Coalition over the issue but at this summit the Syrian seat will remain vacant," Arabi said.

According to Ajmi, Arab leaders are sending the "wrong signal" by not allowing the opposition to fill Syria's seat. The Syria government's brutal repression of protests which erupted in mid-March 2011 resulted in its suspension from the Cairo-based Arab League. The Istanbul-based Syrian Coalition is an umbrella organisation of several opposition groups. The latest US push to advance peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel will also be discussed by Arab leaders. Arabi said Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas, fresh from talks with US President Barack Obama in Washington last Monday, will brief his Arab counterparts on latest developments.

"No summit has been without differences, but this one is full of differences. It is distinguished by the intensity of these disputes which puts an extra burden on the host country," said Ebtisam Al-Qitbi, a professor of political science at the Emirates University in the United Arab Emirates. "It will definitely make it more difficult to focus on coming out with adequate resolutions, not to mention an agreement on anything," she added. "Gulf states see the main challenge coming from Iran's geopolitical project," Qitbi said. "This project is getting strong and is trying to find cracks through which to penetrate the Arab wall."

"I think the Kuwaitis are anxious to ensure the Arab League summit passes off smoothly and without major embarrassment," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the US-based Baker Institute. "The Amir and his officials will be keen to prevent any escalation of the diplomatic row with Qatar and may use the summit to step up private efforts to mediate a solution." - Agencies

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This article was published on 23/03/2014