Saturday, September 18, 2004

United in fear: a week of high-level inter-Arab meetings - Mauritania is current chair of Arab Council of FMs

Arab states are no longer fighting amongst themselves, they are just taking separate roads. Dina Ezzat reports on a week of high-level inter-Arab meetings, courtesy

Here is a copy, in full, for future reference [and for publishing a post at a later date on Mauritania, the current chair of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers]

Unprecedentedly, the atmosphere at this week's meeting of Arab foreign ministers was non-confrontational. A notable departure from typical inter- Arab gatherings.

This time around there were no rows about the relations between the United States-imposed Iraqi government and its neighbours, or about the Palestinian attempts to pursue deals with Israel separately from Syria and Lebanon, or yet again about the military facilities that many of the Arab Gulf states have been generously providing for their American friends.

"This is really unusual. I have been attending Arab foreign ministers meetings for close to 20 years -- since the Cairo Arab League headquarters resumed operation in the early 1980s -- and I have never witnessed such a [none-contentious] meeting," said one Arab League official.

For this official and many Arab diplomats the pacific nature of this week's meeting of Arab foreign ministers, and of the meeting of Arab ministers of economy -- under the umbrella of the Arab Economic and Social Council -- which preceded it, should not be read as an indication of a new-found unity of purpose.

"Not at all. It is just that we have given up hoping to do anything, or for that matter to say anything," said one permanent representative to the Arab League. He elaborated that rather than attempt to bridge the deep chasms dividing them, the Arab states seem to have conceded that these are insurmountable.

The dividing line, he went on to explain, is delineated by the nature of relations with the US. "Some of us have more than strategic ties with the US while some others are still being viewed by the US as enemies. And at the end of the day we are all afraid of the US, either out of fear of military intervention and economic sanctions, or because of the military and security dependence that some Arab countries have on the US."

Such caving in to a regional Pax Americana is ominous, suggest a number of Arab diplomats, one described it as "disturbing and indicative of the disintegration of the Arab regional system".

The Arab foreign ministers meeting served as a venue for maintaining a semblance of agreement on the non- controversial issues.

The contentious issues, however, are being aired at sub-regional forums, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (grouping Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman). Moreover, it appears that the Arab states are increasingly pursuing their strategic interests -- especially those related to overall regional security arrangements -- away from the umbrella of the Arab League.

On the eve of the Arab foreign ministers meeting Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Sobbah, speaking on behalf of the GCC, made an unprecedented call upon Syria to pull out its troops out of Lebanon.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Al-Moashar, whose country shares the GCC's close relationship with the US, took a similar line. In a statement he made before arriving in Cairo, he said Amman was expecting Syria to respond to the demands made by UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution calls on Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon.

For their part, neither the Syrian nor the Lebanese delegations asked for the Arab foreign ministers meeting to adopt a stance against this resolution.

The joint Syrian-Lebanese demand was for an Arab resolution that indicates support for both countries in the face of any potential aggression.

Syrian diplomats were "working very hard to structure a new relationship with the US on the basis of mutual cooperation on regional security matters in Iraq on one hand and Syria- Lebanon-Palestine, on the other" said one Arab diplomat. Damascus was not expecting Arab foreign ministers to take a stance against the harsh US anti- Syrian rhetoric.

Neither was Iraqi Foreign Minister Houchiar Zibari very insistent on having the Arab states meet his government's request for military, security and diplomatic support.

Implied criticism of the interim Iraqi government during the meeting failed to illicit a reaction from Zibari. At one point, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa remarked that the "the gates of hell have been opened in Iraq," pointedly looking towards Zibari. Visibly upset, the Iraqi foreign minister, nevertheless, did not respond.

Nor did he react much to statements made by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit, during a joint press conference, in which he categorically denied that Cairo had any plans to send troops to Iraq. "Our forces [will not go to Iraq] to [shoot at] the Iraqi people, and we cannot accept our sons to be shot at in Iraq," said Abul- Gheit.

The Iraqi minister, however, seemed satisfied with the resolution adopted by Arab foreign ministers that calls for "a wider Arab presence" in Iraqi affairs.

Mauritania, the current chair of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers, refrained from bringing up its dispute with Libya over an alleged attempt by Tripoli to overthrow the Nouakchott regime and publicly shrugged off a standing Libyan request for the Arab League to look into these claims.

Similar nonchalance with regards to a collective Arab position was shown by Sudan, over the crisis in Darfur, as well as by both the Egyptians and Palestinians over developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front.

Instead, on the fringe of the pan-Arab meetings, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath held separate meetings with European, US and UN officials, including US Under Secretary of State William Burns and UN Envoy to the Middle East Terry Larsen. Some Arab foreign ministers were briefed on the outcome of these meetings.

"We have said so much. The situation is very clear to everybody and we have so many plans, but what we need [now] is to get out of the current prolonged phase of Arab inaction," Shaath said.

The Americans and the Europeans urged the Arab states to take political reform more seriously. But neither of the two meetings introduced any collective Arab plans aimed at pursuing political reform.

"It is very obvious that Arab countries are not in agreement either over political reform or the notion of the Greater Middle East, as propounded by the US. It is also very clear that they do not want to argue much about it amongst themselves," said one Arab diplomat who attended the discussion on the Greater Middle East.

The few resolutions adopted collectively in relation to regional security were confined to coordination on preparations for the 2005 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and on two conferences related to non-proliferation of small arms.

Prickly issues such as concerns over a possible US strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, threats of sanctions against Syria and Sudan, and the security implications of the expanding role of NATO in the region were not brought up.

Arab foreign ministers will start flying to New York for the General Assembly meeting as of early next week.

Additional reporting by Reem Nafie and Magda El-Ghitany. [Note photo appears in article: Clockwise from top left: Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara; Libyan and Lebanese foreign ministers Abdel-Rahman Shalgam and Jean Obeid; Iraq's Houchiar Zibari ; and his Sudanese counterpart Mostafa Othman Ismail]


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