Algiers summit fails to paper over the cracks in Arab unity

The 31st Arab League summit concluded in Algiers this week in a manner expected of a hopeless gathering strangely touted as a great reunion of the Arab world after a two-year hiatus. 

There was little expectation that this year’s convention would defy the odds and become an avenue for decisive or transformative shifts, let alone much-needed bridge-building in an increasingly uncertain, discordant world. 

It did manage, however, to slightly elevate Algiers’ status in the region, as a less vulnerable leadership seeks to capitalize on the flurry of attention for its energy resources from Europe given the war in Ukraine.

Algiers’ push to further Arab unity sounds good on paper. However, trying to do so with this summit would buck a decades-long trend of Arab governments using the gathering mostly to outline disagreements rather than seeking common ground and making consequential decisions in pursuit of shared goals. 

Thus, turning this new attention into assertive foreign policy and a launch pad for forceful interventions remains easier said than done, given widening rifts, worsening tensions, resurgent conflict and instability across the Arab region. 

After all, most league members are facing food crises, rampant inflation and shortages, with as many as 141 million people, roughly a quarter of the Arab world’s population, exposed to food insecurity. 

Worsening effects of climate change, of which this region suffers disproportionate impacts, are also exacerbating water insecurity in the world’s most arid region.

In other words, only a few Arab states are not teetering on the brink of economic turmoil, widespread unrest or total collapse, unlike those that are still dependent on increasingly costly imports due to a lack of domestic capacities for self-sufficiency, particularly in agriculture and energy production.

Arab leadership does recognize that the spirit of individualism that undergirds Arab cooperation today is hampering efforts to establish comprehensive frameworks, strategies and policies to transform joint dialogue into joint deeds.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Meanwhile, the accelerating climate fight will also add more pressure on those countries already struggling to transition to renewables without contributing further to unemployment or sidelining the private sector, while also drastically shrinking the public sector. 

All eyes will be on Tunisia and Egypt as they try to navigate this quandary with some help from the International Monetary Fund.

It is times like these that the Arab League and similar regional conventions or bodies must step up to, for instance, reorganize channels for grain supplies and stocks, redesign energy routes, integrate electricity grids and adopt effective region-wide water resource management practices. 

Instead, much of the discourse before and during the gathering centered around Palestine — an unexorcisable core of the league itself, which has tragically devolved into a major obstacle in the furtherance of Arab unity, joint action and steadfast cooperation. 

Granted, Algiers did manage to eke out a reconciliation among 14 Palestinian factions last month, a promising start. 

In addition, most dignitaries rightly agree that resolving the Palestinian crisis is pivotal to the region. However, there is a sharp divide on exactly how that can be achieved. 

On Palestine, this summit kept up with the usual tradition of issuing non-actionable, non-binding statements, and it is unlikely future gatherings will offer anything more than rhetorical support.

Furthermore, the region remains divided on the question of Syria’s return to the league, with Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia pushing for its reinstatement, while other countries remain hesitant, believing it a step too far in Syria’s inevitable rehabilitation. 

Meanwhile, tensions are brewing between Algeria, the host of the 31st summit, and Egypt, where the Arab League’s headquarters are located, over the crisis in Libya and the strengthening of Algerian-Ethiopian ties. 

Algiers moving to reassert itself diplomatically on the African continent is mostly guided by its rivalry with Morocco for continental hegemony. 

However, when such moves result in boosting cooperation and engagement with Ethiopia, which is currently mired in a dispute with Cairo concerning the fill rate of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile, it risks eroding Egypt-Algeria bilateral ties at an inopportune time. 

Both Algiers and Cairo will need to coordinate their efforts in Libya in order not to imperil any regional mediation efforts to unify the country’s competing governments, and permanently defuse the powder keg on their borders.

For now, delegates appeared content with merely treading water. 

Adopting the Algiers Declaration simply glosses over the region’s crippling divisions, heightened tensions and inevitable dysfunction that neuter repeated calls for joint action to address mounting regional challenges or any efforts to elevate Arab interests in an increasingly multipolar world. 

The declaration complements a ministerial conference held in September, where participating foreign ministers could muster only paperweight resolutions on Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as the usual finger-wagging castigations of encroachments by Turkey and Iran in some Arab states. 

Precisely what that joint action is, and who will initiate, police and cooperate with it are conversations that will likely never happen — despite the risks posed by geopolitical frictions threatening to unravel the global order, regional fragmentation and mounting domestic woes, all of which imperil long-term Arab security, prosperity and stability. 

The withering reality across the Arab world is simply that there is no appetite for or political capital to spend on fostering the naive idealism of a nebulous Arab unity when the realpolitik of pursuing national interests delivers better dividends. 

In fact, the league itself is still unsure of whether it intends to be an autonomous entity, disentangled from the squabbles between great powers, or persist with a dated, Cold War-esque mentality that splits the world into two distinct East-West halves and doggedly aligning with one.

Talk of reforms remains just that — talk. Clearly, Arab leadership does recognize that the spirit of individualism that undergirds Arab cooperation today is hampering efforts to establish comprehensive frameworks, strategies and policies to transform joint dialogue into joint deeds. 

The jury is out on whether the path to reform lies in member states undergoing sociopolitical developments of their own or with the league itself changing with the times, particularly its decision-making processes that often require unanimous consent.

More importantly, merely stressing the importance of joint efforts to safeguard Arab common interests also will not be enough to convince an overwhelming majority of the Arab public of the league’s enduring relevance. 

To the region’s youth, the league is a relic from an unfamiliar past that has failed to advance joint Arab action over decades or strengthen a united Arab voice on the international stage. 

It has only ever served to burnish the host nation’s regional credentials, while offering a stage for platforming grievances, choreographed outrage and performative stunts.

Dialogue triumphing over discord? Not in our lifetime.

• Hafed Al-Ghwell 

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