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January 28, 2009

Arab Rivalries Evident at Economic Summit

by Jim Lobe

CAIRO – Despite declarations of Arab unity at a recent economic summit, Egyptian commentators say that fundamental differences between rival Arab camps – especially over the issue of Palestine – are far from over.

"The deep divisions currently plaguing the Arab world cannot be solved over the course of an official state luncheon," Mohamed Abu Al-Hadid, political analyst and chairman of the board of the state-owned Dar al-Tahrir publishing house, wrote in official daily Al-Gomhouriya Jan. 22.

On Jan. 16, leaders and representatives of 12 Arab League (AL) member states attended a meeting in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the carnage then taking place in the Gaza Strip through Israel's military campaign. The meeting followed repeated calls by Qatar for an emergency AL summit in hope of forging a common Arab stance against ongoing Israeli aggression.

Regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, declined to attend. Instead, they announced their intention to discuss the crisis at a scheduled Arab economic summit in Kuwait three days later.

The move highlighted the long-standing divide among AL members, which pits Washington's "moderate" Arab allies – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – against those opposed to U.S. policy in the region.

The differences between the two blocs are defined largely by their respective positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the former grouping backs U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, the latter supports resistance against Israel led by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Abbas recognizes Israel and insists on holding U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israeli counterparts, despite the abject failure of talks to realize even modest Palestinian demands. By contrast, Hamas – democratically elected in 2006 – rejects Israel's legitimacy, cleaving instead to a strategy of armed resistance.

Israel's 2006 war on southern Lebanon fostered similar divisions, with Washington's Arab allies supporting the U.S.-backed Beirut government against Lebanese resistance faction Hezbollah. Israel's recent war on the Gaza Strip – which lasted from Dec. 27 to Jan. 17 and resulted in more than 1,300 Palestinian deaths – aggravated the long-standing rift.

According to Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director at the semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the decision by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to avoid Doha reflected "conflicts over how to deal with the crisis" then playing out in Gaza.

"Qatar wanted to take a very tough stand against Israel," Abdel Fattah told IPS. "The moderate states, meanwhile, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, wanted to adopt a more nuanced approach in hope of persuading Israel to halt hostilities."

In the absence of leading "moderate" representatives, the Doha meeting took a relatively strong stand against the Israeli aggression in Gaza, with both Qatar and Mauritania announcing the suspension of official relations with Israel.

In a joint declaration, participants urged Arab countries to cut all ties and break off all peace talks with Israel, which they charged with committing war crimes. The statement also demanded that Israel "cease its assault on Gaza and leave unconditionally," and called for the immediate reopening of the embattled enclave's borders.

Speaking at the meeting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the 2002 Arab peace initiative – which offers full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for key Palestinian demands – as "dead." He went on to say that Syria had called off indirect talks with Israel, launched last year through Turkish mediators.

Notably, for the first time ever at a high-level Arab political meeting, the Palestinian people were represented by Hamas, not – as has always been the case at AL meetings – by the PA. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal used the opportunity to reiterate Hamas' rejection of any cease-fire proposal that did not include the permanent reopening of the Gaza Strip's borders.

According to Abdel Fattah, the decision by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to spurn the event was also partially aimed at Qatar. Despite its tiny size, Qatar has recently reinvented itself as a regional power broker, straddling the fence between rival camps.

"Qatar has tried to take a leading role in the region, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia see this as an infringement on their own diplomatic roles," he said. "Egypt also fears that Qatar might be acting as a mask for Iranian and Syrian influence."

In an editorial, Abu Al-Hadid reminded readers that Qatar – despite its pretensions – represented no less of a U.S. ally than states of the "moderate" axis. "Let's not forget that Qatar, while trumpeting a tough stand against Israel, plays host to the biggest U.S. airbase in the region," he wrote.

Nevertheless, discord appeared to give way to unity when Arab leaders gathered in Kuwait for the economic summit on Jan. 19 and 20. Although initially intended to focus on Arab economic, social, and development issues, the meeting was dominated by ongoing violence in Gaza.

On the summit's first day, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz hosted a formal luncheon for the leaders of Kuwait, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Qatar. At the conclusion of the closed-door event, attendees announced they had turned a "new page" of Arab reconciliation, declaring an end of traditional rivalries, particularly those between Egypt and Qatar and between Syria and Saudi Arabia.

"We turned a new page for the good of the Arab world," Qatari PM Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem told satellite news channel al-Jazeera shortly afterward.

The following day, Arab leaders announced the establishment of a sizable financial trust for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, along with a number of other joint economic projects. In a final statement, long-standing political differences between participants were downplayed or avoided.

Most local commentators, meanwhile, doubted the sincerity of the abrupt expressions of unity heard at the conference.

"These declarations don't amount to real reconciliation," said Abdel Fattah. "The same old divisions remain – over Israel, the role of the Palestinian resistance, and the role of non-Arab neighbors in the region."

According to Abdelhalim Kandil, editor-in-chief of independent weekly Sout al-Umma, the issue of Arab division is largely illusory, "since both camps appear to be on the U.S.-Israeli doorstep, albeit to differing degrees."

"All these regimes are fully aware that there is no difference between Israel and the U.S.," Kandil wrote Jan. 19. "Yet despite the massacres taking place in Gaza, none of them ever considered cutting relations with Washington or expelling the U.S. military presence from their respective countries."

He added: "This, of course, is because the U.S. is in the region expressly to protect these regimes."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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