Beirut Summit: What Direction will the Arab World Head In?
The fourth Arab League Summit, held in Beirut, without a doubt, did not leave a positive impression, and instead generated a number of questions on resolving pressing issues facing the entire Arab world.
In the past, summits of the League of Arab States were usually attended by leaders of Arab nations, Presidents and Prime Ministers. This time around, mainly Ministers of Foreign Affairs attended this high profile event. In fact, at the opening of the Summit, its executive body included only three state leaders: the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun; the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and the President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Representatives from Syria were absent, and so were those from Libya who chose to boycott the Forum. It is quite clear that second rank officials are neither able nor do they have the necessary authority to solve pressing problems of all the Arab countries.
How did it come to this and can anyone be held responsible? Initially, this Summit was meant to serve as the means of restoring the Arab League membership of the Syrian Arab Republic and its legitimate leader Bashar al-Assad, and as a platform for discussing the amount of funds necessary for the Republic’s reconstruction efforts. This plan seemed quite reasonable and beneficial to interests of all the Arab nations. However, Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not share this view, since they had spent dozens of billions of dollars on toppling the legitimate government, headed by Bashar al-Assad. The funds, supplied by these and other hostile to Syria nations, were used to buy weapons from the former socialist camp and the USA and Great Britain; to hire terrorists from various backgrounds, and to then pay their “settling-in allowance”, salary and bonuses. These mercenaries also received chemical weapons on a regular basis, which were used, on a number of occasions, against the Syrian civilian population. Then, members of the so-called White Helmets worked off their generous “tips” by manipulating facts and accusing the legitimate Syrian authorities of using such weapons. As is typical of such situations, most of these White Helmets members are now hiding in the UK in an attempt to evade investigations of their crimes.
It is worth reminding our readers that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were the ones responsible for applying pressure on most Arab nations by paying them off for pursuing acquiescent policies. For instance, how can Somalia and Sudan who receive Saudi aid, or the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Al-Hariri, who was held in Saudi Arabia for two weeks, oppose these ruling nations?
It is noteworthy that less than a week before the Summit, the U.S. Under Secretary of State David Hale visited Beirut. He criticized Iran’s actions in the Middle East, the Lebanese Shia political movement, Hezbollah, and also promised Lebanon that the United States would continue to support it militarily. These statements were made at a time, when there were signs that the subject of Arab nations cooperating on reconstruction efforts in Syria and the possibility of reinstating its membership in the Arab League could have become the focus of the Summit. In fact, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was even mentioned as a potential participant of this meeting.
In addition, Mike Pompeo sharply criticized the idea of inviting Syria to the Summit and of resolving its issues there. During his visit, which ended on the eve of the start of the meeting in Beirut, he attempted to convince his Arab counterparts in various ways to not only continue applying pressure on Damascus, but to also finance terrorists, especially since their numbers have dropped precipitously. As a result, Damascus did not take part in the Summit, which is why substantive and pressing Syrian issues that affect the entire Arab world were not addressed.
Still, the host of the Summit, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, attempted to infuse a more businesslike tone into the proceedings by highlighting difficulties, which Arab nations were experiencing because of internal conflicts that are not only ruining their economies but also economies of their neighbors due to a flood of refugees. He emphasized that the international community needed to exert all of its efforts to ensure a safe return of Syrian refugees to their home from Lebanon, without waiting for a political resolution of the conflict. Michel Aoun, also stated that cooperation between Arab nations was essential for overcoming their common challenges. With this aim in mind, he suggested giving the idea of creating an International Arab Fund some careful consideration. This organization could facilitate reconstruction efforts and aid development in countries affected by armed conflicts.
Michel Aoun also focused on the need, at this point in time, for Arab countries to modernize their economies by digitalization, among other means. His ideas were supported by Kuwait and Qatar, which adds further weight to these proposals. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kuwait, Sabah Al Khaled Al Ahmad Al Sabah promised that his nation would allocate $50 million for the future Arab investment fund to develop the digital economy. Qatar’s Minister of Finance, Ali Sharif Al Emadi, who became the head of his nation’s delegation after the Emir of Qatar had left the Summit shortly after its opening, also pledged the same amount.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not greet these plans with much enthusiasm, since they did not deem it feasible to make substantial investments into nations that have been recently affected by political and economic woes, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Lebanon. Instead, they made an announcement about their plans to establish a joint cryptocurrency system, seemingly, with the aim of strengthening their strategic partnership, easing cross-national border payments and developing technology. In the future, according to their statement, this system is expected to transform into a common payment tool for all the Arab League nations, naturally, under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. However, the readers should not forget that it was the Saudis who had already experienced failure with their ambitious blueprint Saudi Vision 2030, aimed at transforming the Kingdom into a modern state. Hence, it is comical to talk about an actual introduction of cryptocurrency into financial systems of Arab countries. Ambitions abound but will any of them come to fruition?
When all of these developments are taken into account, it is quite clear that the final Summit declaration was, for the most part, full of all too common phrases, and positive wishes and appeals: to create the Arab Investment Fund for developing the digital economy, to implement some (not clear which) projects to support Syrian refugees, to work on removing trade barriers in the Arab world, and to create a free trade zone. It is worth reminding our readers that, according to the data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at present, there are 5.6 million Syrian refugees living in the region, including approximately 1 million born as a result of displacement. Lebanon is home to around 1.5 million Syrians who fled Syria to escape the civil war. Data from aid agencies indicates that most of these people live in extreme poverty, and this has become an additional burden for Lebanon’s fragile economy. Still, a concrete plan to assist these refugees was not adopted during the conference.
This begs quite a reasonable question “Why, then, did these Ministers of Foreign Affairs meet?” A probable answer is “to simply talk and create an illusion that they are the ones with their fingers on the pulse of the Arab world”.
In this regard, we have to fully agree with a truthful opinion, published by the Syrian newspaper Tishreen, stating that Syrians were right not to have taken part in the Beirut Summit. It added that, currently, the Arab League leadership had lost its influence and was following policies dictated by Riyadh. A clear illustration of this was the fact that no concrete actions were taken to improve the situation in Syria (the bloodiest wound the Arab world is suffering from) and to provide immediate assistance to Syrian refugees. Instead there was much talk about some nebulous plans, which Syrians had heard on more than one occasion, to do with unity in the Arab world and the creation of a single financial and trade system.
Iran Daily, an Iranian newspaper, published some sharp statements, saying that instead of focusing on resolving truly pressing issues, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who pursued U.S.-led policies in the region, had ordered his representatives at the Summit in Beirut to dilute its agenda and transform the event into yet another Arab “conversation club”.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”