DOHA (AFP) – Arab leaders opened their annual summit in Qatar on Monday in the presence of Sudan’s President Omar al-Beshir, accused of committing war crimes in Darfur, but a snub by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dimmed hopes of healing Arab rifts.
Seventeen heads of state from the 22-member Arab League and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were present for the opening address by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the two-day gathering.
Beshir, defying a March 4 arrest warrant against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged war crimes in Darfur, arrived to a warm welcome in Doha on Sunday, emphasising the broad Arab support he enjoys.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also arrived in the Qatari capital on Sunday, is attending the summit despite the presence of Beshir.
“Sudan is a member of the United Nations while the International Criminal Court is an independent judicial body, which does not prevent the United Nations from dealing with Sudan,” a UN official told AFP requesting anonymity.
Beshir, who was expected to hold a news conference in Doha later Monday, has become one of the stars of the gathering and discussion on the ICC’s arrest warrant against him is expected to be on the agenda of the summit.
Arab foreign ministers approved a draft declaration on Saturday urging the ICC to halt proceedings against the Sudanese leader and calling upon all Arab states to reject the court’s ruling.
While Arab leaders are expected to unite behind Beshir, obtaining consensus on wider issues such as relations with Israel in the wake of its war on Gaza at the turn of the year is expected to prove more elusive.
According to a draft statement obtained by AFP, the Arab leaders are expected to adopt a Saudi-sponsored resolution urging “dialogue and consultation in solving Arab differences.”
It also calls for avoiding “fiery and escalatory language… and rejecting ruptures in relations and disputes,” while urging “action to develop a common Arab strategy to confront political, security and economic challenges.”
The Arab states had hoped to close ranks split largely over how to respond to Israel’s 22-day onslaught against the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and amid the growing regional influence of Shiite Iran.
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, urged foreign ministers meeting ahead of the summit to strive towards creating a unified front, beyond making a show of solidarity with Sudan.
“We have to live up to our responsibilities and work towards closing ranks,” he said.
But President Mubarak of Egypt, whose country is the largest Arab nation in terms of population and is a major regional powerhouse, has decided to shun the summit.
Mubarak is believed to view Doha as taking an anti-Cairo stand during the Gaza war.
Cairo and Riyadh are staunch supporters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, while Damascus and Doha back the Islamist movement Hamas, which routed Abbas’s Fatah loyalists from Gaza in deadly factional fighting in June 2007.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia began mending fences with Syria, with King Abdullah meeting Mubarak and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Riyadh on March 11, two months after another ice-breaking mini-summit in Kuwait.
These two meetings allowed Western-backed Egypt and Saudi Arabia to improve contacts with Syria — a major Arab ally of Iran — which had worsened during the war on Gaza.