Foreign policy rifts beset Arabs ahead of summit

DUBAI/KUWAIT Sun Mar 23, 2014 10:19am EDT

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby speaks during the ''Foreign Policy Outlook'' session at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2013 at the King Hussein Convention Centre, at the Dead Sea May 25, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby speaks during the ''Foreign Policy Outlook'' session at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2013 at the King Hussein Convention Centre, at the Dead Sea May 25, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

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DUBAI/KUWAIT (Reuters) - Rifts over foreign policy will likely make it harder for Arab leaders meeting at a summit this week to forge a common stand on regional challenges, including what many of them see as a threat from Iranian-U.S. rapprochement.

And while the Arab League meeting may agree more humanitarian action in response to Syria's war, any communique calling for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad will not reflect divergent views behind the scenes about the Syrian leader's handling of the conflict.

Syria and Iran are not the only points of contention at the annual summit, scheduled to take place in Kuwait on March 25-26.

The meeting follows an unprecedented row among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance of Gulf Arab states over support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and a verbal spat between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over violence in Iraq's Anbar province.

"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.

Ahead of the summit, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said there had been no tensions at a meeting of his Arab counterparts in preparation for discussions later this week.

"The Kuwaiti host in fact has smoothed relations. There were no tensions between the delegates who were present," he told reporters in Kuwait.

A decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain earlier this month to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar was not discussed at the meeting, he said.

Arab summits have long been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic on which most Arab states share a common view. But "Arab Spring" uprisings that began in 2011 have polarized the region.

Syria's war echoes strains between Sunni Muslims, notably in the Gulf, and Shi'ites in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, whose faith is related to that of Assad's Alawite minority.

"STAND BY THE SYRIAN PEOPLE"

"There is a desperate need to clear the Arab atmosphere and to benefit from convening the summit," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in remarks carried by Egyptian media last week.

In separate remarks, Elaraby agreed at a news conference that the summit's decisions would be affected by "differences".

Syrian opposition leaders have been lobbying the 22-member League of Arab States to give them Syria's seat on the pan-Arab body, and to push Arab states to approve the delivery of military hardware to them to boost their fight to bolster Assad.

Elaraby said in Kuwait that Syria's Arab League seat would remain vacant. A senior Kuwaiti official, however, said that the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed al-Jarba, would deliver a speech at the summit.

"The Arab summit is required to stand by the Syrian people in its great tragedy, not with words only but with material, financial, political and military backing," Saudi Arabia's Okaz newspaper quoted National Coalition member Mohammed al-Sarmini as saying.

But Syria's Arab allies, including Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon, oppose any such support for the rebels. They point out that Islamists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, are the most potent force in the armed opposition.

FRAGILITY

Most Gulf Arab states, wary of Iranian influence among Shi'ite co-religionists in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, want the summit to send a strong message to Iran to stop alleged meddling there. Iran denies any interference.

They also fret that their main ally, the United States, participating in talks about Iran's disputed nuclear program, may one day restore full ties with Tehran three decades after they were cut in a crisis over the taking of U.S. hostages.

"Gulf states see the main challenge coming from Iran's geo-political project," Qitbi said. "This project is getting strong and is trying to find cracks through which to penetrate the Arab wall."

The summit is also likely to be complicated by the political fragility of Egypt, the most populous Arab country: Cairo has been absorbed by its own internal problems since Egypt's army ousted President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood group from power last year after mass protests against his rule.

The army takeover fuelled long-standing differences between Qatar, a Brotherhood ally, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which both see the group as a potent political threat.

"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 U.S.-based Baker Institute.

"The emir 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."

(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean and Sophie Hares)

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Comments (3)
Aldo_Raines wrote:
Getting the dreaded sand people to cooperate is like herding cats. They respond better to explosions. If at the start of the conference they had them all gather outside and blew something up nearby, they would all start screaming Allahu Akbar, and perhaps in their good spirit would maybe work together a bit better. Something to consider. The sand people love explosions.

Mar 23, 2014 8:57am EDT  --  Report as abuse
merankin wrote:
There are several power struggles within the Arab countries that must be resolved. The main one is the power struggle between the old guard (monarchy) and the new Muslim democracy be it (Muslim brotherhood)type. These to groups are then divided by sect Sunni,Shia which if they came together would be a greater force than any group presently. I understand why those in power want to hold on to it at any cost is what I don’t understand. They must find a way to change the dynamic while still be a force. The US must try to have a relationship with all parties while they figure out how to come up with a power sharing agreement.

Mar 23, 2014 9:51am EDT  --  Report as abuse
columbare1 wrote:
This summit is the Arabs, and Islamists, best chance to end the war in Syria ,as this war is as religious as it is political,and only the various rulers and different sects of Islam can make, and keep the peace. Where failure of this summit will mean, wars will continue, and accelerate, in Islam .

Mar 23, 2014 11:46am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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