The Arab League Summit in Jeddah was a breath of fresh air compared with what we have come to expect of such occasions. Serious journalists haven’t habitually had much positive to say about Arab summits, which tend to be long on rhetoric but short on action and relevance, with a heavy odor of underachievement and missed opportunities.
Journalists and diplomats commented positively on how smoothly this latest event was conducted, with disciplined and focused speeches and a pragmatic agenda. The conspicuous inclusion of younger voices offered a nod to the increasingly forward-looking, young and dynamic regional leadership.
The summit represented a gesture of intent by Arab states, Saudi Arabia in particular, to once again play a more assertive and unified role on the global stage. However, as ever, the true test will be the delivery of tangible results.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation was a bold choice, and evidence of mature readiness to listen to difficult messages and publicly delivered criticism. Ukraine’s president declared: “Anyone who defends his native land from invaders, and anyone who defends children of his nation from enslavement — every such warrior is on the path of justice, and I am proud to represent such warriors.” Can any patriotic Arabs listen to such a statement and not think of the Palestinian struggle? Let’s salute Zelensky and Ukraine’s bold response to unprovoked aggression.
For states such as Egypt and Lebanon, Ukraine has historically been a principal grain supplier, so Ukraine’s wellbeing and agricultural stability are a matter of existential survival for hundreds of millions of Arabs.
Bashar Assad was the second eyebrow-raising guest. Many of us hoped the Syrian leader would show greater contrition, acknowledging the blood on his hands and pledging reconciliation — but the speech was vintage Assad, weaving a patchwork of conspiracy theories and petty grievances. “It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people, as they are best able to manage them,” he declared, conveniently forgetting Iran and Russia’s intervention on his behalf.
Media outlets associated with Hezbollah, Tehran and Damascus are hailing Assad’s inclusion as a victory over other Arab states, portraying him as rolling into Jeddah as a “conquering hero.” Hezbollah’s Hashem Safieddine hyperbolically declared that Assad’s attendance offered “irrefutable evidence that the assertions of many politicians constituted fantasies, mirages, illusions, and expired promises.” This is all nonsense. In the 12 years that Assad spent destroying his country and gassing and torturing his own citizens, other Arab states have prospered and flourished, with state-of-the-art education systems, cultural florescence, economic diversification, and profound social reforms.
There is nothing victorious about Assad in 2023. Only through the heavy backing of Iran and Russia does he control modest portions of Syrian territory. Syria is a fragmented and depopulated nation, with over half its citizens displaced, five million of whom are refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The economy is irredeemably shattered, with around 15.3 million Syrians requiring emergency aid.
The post-2011 decade was a horrific period for the Arab world, defined by civil conflicts, proxy wars, political instability, bitter divisions, and unrestrained Iranian interference.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said refugees could not return until Syria had been rebuilt. But who does he expect to rush in and rebuild Syria? As long as this puppet regime is configured to facilitate reconstruction funds being looted by Tehran and the Assad clan, they shouldn’t expect a penny from wealthy Gulf states or any other source — particularly with the regime keeping itself financially afloat by smuggling narcotics into regional states.
Assad’s airy comment that every Syrian was welcome to return failed to offer guarantees that his torturers and executioners wouldn’t persecute anyone who ventured within Syria’s borders. Stories are rife of returning Syrians being sequestered into the army or disappearing into Assad’s torture chambers. This regime must wake up and get a grip of reality if it is to benefit from the peace dividend of Arab League reintegration beyond cheap one-off handshake photo opportunities. The world will be carefully watching Assad’s Arab League rehabilitation. If he exploits it for maximum gain while offering zero compromises, there will be no appetite for Syria returning to the international fold.
Decades after achieving their own nominal peace deals, most Egyptians and Jordanians still regard Israel as the enemy because of its continuing hostile and expansionist policies toward Arabs and Palestinians. Whether Arabs re-embrace trade, tourism and investment with Syria, or whether Damascus’s de facto isolation continues, will be determined by whether Assad continues acting like an enemy of humanity and his own citizens.
The Jeddah summit punctuates a dizzying period of rapid regional realignments. With Chinese brokerage, Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties with Iran, paving the way for an end to the Yemen conflict and with potentially profound implications for states such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia last year brokered a Ukraine-Russia prisoner exchange deal and has hinted at a more far-reaching mediation role. The Jeddah talks between Sudan’s warring parties likewise appear to be starting to bear fruit, with this conflict a central discussion theme during the Arab summit.
Bahrain’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Lebanon, and GCC labors to rehabilitate Iraq, are among a multitude of comprehensive efforts toward Arab realignment. The Arab summit final communique delineated ambitious objectives for addressing the drivers of regional conflict and instability, including outlawing support for “unauthorized and illegitimate” militias, rejecting meddling by hostile states such as Iran, and calling on “all Lebanese factions” to unite around a consensus choice of president and extract the country from its crisis.
These laudable goals must be combined with regionwide campaigns for economic, cultural and educational renaissance — particularly in support of nations such as Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan and Sudan, where the suffering of ordinary people is chronic and profound.
The post-2011 decade was a horrific period for the Arab world, defined by civil conflicts, proxy wars, political instability, bitter divisions, and unrestrained Iranian interference. The Jeddah summit represented a major opportunity to put this painful chapter behind us — offering the prospect of the Arab world once again being a strong and united global force.
• Baria Alamuddin