How sincere, honest and correct King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz was with himself and others in his opening speech at the 19th Arab summit held in Riyadh. The King talked frankly about the way things were, speaking not as a traditional or even a revolutionary Arab leader who considered everything to be fine and well and as if nothing more could be done, rather he spoke out of the conscience of the average Arab citizen, the disappointment of whom remains as a result of the inconsistency between words and actions.
From the first Arab summit in Anshas, Egypt, in May 1946 to the Riyadh summit in March 2007, the Arab leaders have spent 60 years taking part in ordinary and extraordinary meetings. We can almost conclude that, although leaders came and went and time has affected the rest of the world, the items on the agenda have somewhat remained the same, implying that nothing has been accomplished that requires changing the agenda.
Yes, although issues remained the same – issues that were always dubbed “crucial turning points” – nothing has been accomplished. On the contrary, ever since, matters have shifted from bad to worse as if time has stopped in the Arab world, has been moving backwards or is even non-existent – a new theory of relativity that is this time exclusive to the Arab world. The extraordinary summit of 1946 in Anshas for example, was dedicated to supporting the Palestinian cause even before the rise of Israel, and the Riyadh summit of 2007, with Israel being the dominating power in the region, is largely dedicated to the Arab peace initiative for a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue. Between Anshas and Riyadh, the Palestinian cause topped the agendas of the key Arab summits. The Beirut summit of 1965 was held to support Egypt against the tripartite aggression in the aftermath of the nationalization of the Suez Canal by the new Egyptian regime, which had assumed power through a military coup, the leaders of which raised the banner of Palestine and the liberation of Palestine.
The Khartoum summit of 1967, or the summit of the ‘three no’s’ in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, was dedicated to reject any kind of relations with Israel. The Cairo summit of 1970 aimed to end the fighting between the Palestinians and the Jordanians in Amman’s mountains, in the streets of Irbid and the alleyways of the town of Salt. The Rabat summit of 1974 was intended for recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and withdrawing this capacity from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which comprised of both banks of the Jordan River.
The Riyadh and Cairo summits of 1976 were intended for debating the civil war in Lebanon; the Baghdad summit of 1978 was planned for the boycotting of Egypt following Sadat’s visit to Israel; the Tunis summit of 1979 was aimed at rejecting the Camp David Accord. It was the Fez summit of 1982 that approved King Fahd’s peace project, the Casablanca summit of 1989 that returned Egypt to the Arab League, the Cairo summit of 1990 that condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Beirut summit of 2002 that launched then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s peace initiative. The Khartoum summit of 2006 was the last before the Riyadh summit, the closing statement of which stressed the centrality of the Palestinian cause. More recently, the Riyadh summit was held while the Palestinian cause is still the main Arab concern; and if Palestine is not the concern, then it is a pivotal part of the wider issue, such as in the Lebanese civil war, the fight between the Jordanian army and the armed Palestinian factions in Jordan or the tripartite aggression against Egypt. Throughout these years, nothing has changed regarding the closing statements of those summits. Almost all of them focused on the centrality of the Palestinian cause, backing the Palestinian people, condemning the Israeli practices and calling upon the international community to stop the Israeli aggression and end the occupation. Probably, the one thing that has changed over these years is the shift from the position of utter rejection of Israel as a regional state to accepting it subject to certain conditions, according to the last Arab peace initiative.
The only change was probably the shift from the famous “no” of Khartoum to a conditional “yes” in Fez, Beirut and Riyadh, which, from my point of view, is positive. However, there remains the key problem with Arab summits, that is, issuing resolutions that are not implemented and being a body without soul, whether Palestine or others are concerned. For example, in the Cairo summit in January 1964, the setting up of a unified command of Arab armies was the key decision made.
In the Alexandria summit in September 1964, the most important decision was to create an Arab court of justice, and the same decision was taken at the Cairo summit in 1966. In the Rabat summit in 1974, focus was laid on the rejection of any change to the status of eastern Jerusalem. In other past summits, there was a lot of focus on boosting Arab solidarity, seeking the establishment of an Arab nuclear energy project for peaceful purposes and the creation of a common Arab market. There were many such decisions that had no effect on the ground and even the contrary was the case. The liberation of Palestine was the main concern of the Palestinians themselves; today we see them fight one another over futile power. The Arabs – states and communities – have stressed the issues of unity, solidarity, cooperation and facing the enemy, the undetermined enemy; however, today, they have divided into groups and factions, both internally and externally, slaughtering one another. If all or part of the decisions made by the Arab summits from Anshas until today had been implemented, Europe, for instance, would have been nothing but a subordinate to the Arab “giant” and America would have only courted the Arabs. But on the contrary, the more we talked about Arab solidarity, the more division, hatred and fighting ensued. There has been talk of a common Arab market even before Europe agreed on the price of tomatoes as an initial step towards its common market. Ultimately, we find what unites the Arabs is diminishing as the days go on.
Will the Riyadh summit differ from the previous ones? Will it be the beginning of a new Arab stage in history that unites words and actions? The reactions of the Arab leaders, who attended the summit and their pictures, as they smiled at and hugged one another, induce optimism; but has this not always been the case? All Arab summits ended with closing speeches that confirmed success and agreement on all issues, followed by warm hugs and smiles, but as soon as individuals returned to their homes, they were back to their old ways even though the raised discourse and slogan was Arab brotherhood, unity and solidarity. We cannot judge the success of the Riyadh summit until a certain time has elapsed for the situation to normalize in the Arab world. I am one of those optimistic about the Riyadh summit, yet it is cautious optimism. Nevertheless, such optimism is not groundless but based on some points that make the Riyadh summit different.
First of these manifestations is that the summit was held under the patronage of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, a man who is frank, just as he was in his opening speech in the conference. He will endeavor to do something as long as matters are within his control. We are not saying that he has magical powers that are capable of reversing the situations overnight, but we do say that he is an honest man with himself and others and seeks to do something. He may or may not succeed, but the endeavor that is built upon firm bases will remain the secret of sound leadership. If he succeeds, then this is what we want; and if he does not succeed, it will be a useful experience as long as good intentions and sincerity persist.
A man like King Abdullah is capable of stirring up the Arab waters and launching a new course for Arab politics in dealing with the self and the world; this is what counts at this stage. Secondly, it is the first time in the history of Arab summits that the closing statement included well-defined, unambiguous decisions that are not intended for public consumption or merely ideological rhetoric to provoke sentiments or call for major projects before minor ones are completed. The Arab peace initiative is, for example, a departure from the traditional Arab discourse in dealing with Israel and the Palestinian issue. It is rather realistic discourse that raises a problem and proposes solutions than one of condemnation and denunciation.
The problem of Arabs with Israel is the occupation, and problem of Israel with the Arabs is security. The solution is to end the occupation for peace – the essence of the Arab peace initiative, which is an unequivocal, realistic project that is capable of being accepted or rejected. Away from Israel and Palestine (or Isratine, as proposed by the inspired leader), the summit, for the first time in its history, adopted a type of discourse that touched the average citizen and avoided the dreams that never bore fruits. Talking about modifying curricula to ensure the promotion of the values of tolerance and creativity, human rights and activating the role of women in community is a new discourse for the Arab League summits. It is even a real qualitative shift in this regard. If the enemy is always right then there is no greater proof of this than Ehud Olmert’s statement to the Kadima Party members that “The Riyadh declaration reflects a revolutionary change in Arab states’ concept of the world,” as reported by Asharq Al Awsat.
The Riyadh summit is the birth certificate of the realistic Arab politics, the precursors of which appeared in the 1990’s. For this reason I am optimistic, yet moderately so. However, it is the reawakening of time in this region that counts – a region that has long opposed time. Hopefully, this lack of temporality will never rear its head again.