Abdullah Al Shayji

It was supposed to be a get-to-know-you Arab summit. But few leaders bothered to show up. Never in the long history of the Arab League pageantry have four Arab leaders lost their posts -having been deposed, killed, exiled or put on trial -between two Arab summits. The fifth, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, was not invited because of the Arab League’s decision to freeze Syrian membership. In addition to those five Arab leaders, eight other Arab leaders opted not to show up in Baghdad. Since the Arab Spring broke out and swept the region, the joke making the rounds in the Arab World was that the next Arab summit would be an orientation and a get-to-know-you summit.

Against all odds and defying the fragile security situation in the new Iraq, Baghdad played host to the 23rd Arab summit on March 29. It was significant for many reasons -who would have thought that almost half the Arab world’s 22 heads of states would meet for the Arab summit in former president Saddam Hussain’s palace in the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad? Who would have thought the Iraqi leadership, composed of self-exiled Kurds, Shias and Sunnis, would be receiving the Arab dignitaries? These are the signs of the new Iraq, which is different from the Iraq that hosted an Arab summit in 1978 to kick out Egypt from the Arab League after the Camp David Accord. Then there was the 1990 Arab summit in Baghdad, which Saddam used as a platform to launch a scathing critique and attacks against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and finally delivered on his threats by invading Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

This was the first Arab summit that was held since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. That puts more pressure and raises the ceiling over what to expect following the Arab summit, considering the mitigating circumstances and the consequences of the Arab Spring.

The Arab summit in Baghdad was supposed to usher in a new era and mark the return of Iraq to the Arab fold after two decades of miscalculations, mayhem, wars and the toppling of Saddam’s regime. It was the first summit to be held following the people’s power movement, wherein the Arab masses feel emboldened and won’t accept business as usual when it comes to handling their affairs. Baghdad hosted a less than successful Arab summit, which was saved by the attendance of the Kuwaiti Emir, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. The Kuwaiti emir insisted on leading Kuwait’s official delegation to Baghdad, becoming the only GCC leader to attend and one of the few Arab heads of state in the summit. The message the emir wanted to send was that Kuwait is pushing for normal relations with Iraq; it was a confidence-building measure and Kuwait wanted Iraq to bask in glory and hold a successful summit. Another reason was to pull Iraq back from Iran’s embrace, after nine years of wars and fragmentation.

But other Arab leaders had other perspectives and because of that the Baghdad Summit had the lowest representation of any Arab summit. It was the shortest Arab summit -just one day -so that Arab leaders wouldn’t need to sleep in Baghdad. The Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari played down the low-level of representation, insisting the most important thing was that all Arab states participated. The Qatari Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani was blunt, declaring the reason for the low representation was to send a message of protest for the marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. Another reason was Iraq’s stance vis a vis Syria, where Baghdad’s position is closer to Tehran’s position on the crisis.

 Invasion aftershocks

But were the Arabs successful in plucking Iraq out of Iran’s orbit? Maybe the Arabs collectively should ask the question: who lost Iraq? The answer to that is the Arabs who stood as bystanders for too long leaving Iraq to the occupying Americans and under the influence of Iranians. The Baghdad Summit was in a way an acknowledgement of the Arabs’ collective sense of sorrow for losing Iraq.

Rami Khouri put it best in his column “Four Arab Worlds Meet in Baghdad this Week.” “Ironically, and sadly, Iraq still reflects all the negative trends that have plagued the entire Arab world for decades … and that finally led to the current wave of populist uprisings. Iraq is plagued by chronic violence, deep internal mistrust, a weak and sputtering federal system, large refugee outflows, lingering terrorism, widespread corruption and inefficiency, lingering aftershocks from foreign invasion and occupation, and other attributes of modern Arab statehood that may or may not be overcome in the coming years.” How many of these attributes would lend themselves to describe the sorry state of the Arab world as well?

The Baghdad Declaration supported the Arab Spring, called for political and economic reforms and asked the Syrian regime to implement the proposals put forward by joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end the deadly year-long conflict. In addition, the declaration recognised the “legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for democracy and freedom and their right to determine their future”. Clearly, the Arab League has been found wanting. It has thrown Syria into the UN Security Council arena to put an end to the senseless killing and carnage.

Very few Arabs held their breaths for the Arab summit or any Arab meeting for that matter. The track record of Arab summits is less than good. But these summits give some kind of unity and Arabs go along with such trappings.

Now Iraq will preside over the rotating presidency of the Arab League. It is ironic that it is the first time that non-Arabs Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, and his Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (both Kurds) will preside over the Arab League. The question remains: what has changed? Has the Arab Spring changed the Arab League and its way of doing business? Or will the Arab League and its annual summit continue to reflect year after year the sorry state of of Arab politics?        –Gulf News