Representatives of Arab governments delivered speeches at the United Nations General Assembly last week. Their words, however, had little influence as foreign powers continue to drive and manage the conflict zones across the Arab world.
A review of 16 speeches by Arab presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers shows that these leaders focused on their own domestic agendas or interests and lacked any coordinated effort toward major challenges facing the Arab world. The governments seemed eager to turn the page of the Arab Spring as they continue to grapple with its implications. Two major themes were a common denominator in most of these speeches: sovereignty and conflict resolution.
It is worth noting that the sovereignty theme in these speeches echoed some of the ideas conveyed by US President Donald Trump, as Arab governments have concerns about their ability to make decisions at the national and regional levels. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warned of the dangers that could follow from “nation-state integration.” United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said1 that one of the primary challenges is “foreign intervention in the Arab world affairs.” Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani spoke2 about “the intervention of regional powers in Moroccan internal affairs,” referring to the Iranian role in the Western Sahara. While a focus on sovereignty reflects the inability to have an impact on regional developments, Arab governments have different interpretations of this theme and their own motivations for highlighting the issue of sovereignty. The first is that these governments are reemphasizing sovereignty in the choices they make at home to combat terrorism or repress dissidents. The second interpretation is a rebuke of Iranian influence in key Arab countries, stretching from Syria to Yemen.
After sovereignty, the second major theme in the Arab leaders’ speeches was a commitment to peaceful conflict resolution in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Egyptian President Sisi noted that there is “no room for partial solutions” for these conflicts, calling instead for a “comprehensive political solution.” Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkadir Messahel said3 that there is no alternative in Syria, Libya, and Yemen but to “restore security, stability, and start the reconstruction process after that.” Oman and Kuwait kept their independent and neutral approach among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Oman called for a “humanitarian project” to “enable access to humanitarian aid by the Yemeni people in different provinces.” Kuwait offered to continue hosting peace talks to resolve the Yemen conflict. Except for the Egyptian president’s speech, all the others addressed the Palestine issue, and only Iraq’s mentioned or directly criticized US policies in that regard.
Scrambling to Deter Iran
The most visible Arab strategy at the UN was an attempt to deter Iran, which was manifest in two major policy decisions. The first, spearheaded by Bahrain and seemingly endorsed by Saudi Arabia, was to engage the Syrian regime by holding an impromptu meeting, on September 30, between Bahraini and Syrian foreign ministers at the United Nations. The second, spearheaded by the United States, was to establish an “Arab NATO” that would include the six GCC countries, Egypt, and Jordan in addition to the United States. The challenges facing this new regional force, which is expected to be announced early next year, are immense; they include the inability to make a difference on the ground and the reality of dealing with the continuing rift in the GCC. However, Washington is hopeful that a strong Arab front can deter Iran.
While Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa noted that the encounter with his Syrian counterpart was “not arranged in advance,” there are indications that it might signal a shift of policy toward Damascus in Manama, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi—with the blessing of Moscow. GCC countries are unable to shape events on the ground in Syria, given the current dynamics; hence they are aiming to bring the Syrian regime closer to them rather than to Iran. These attempts to peel the Syrian regime away from Tehran have been a feature of the GCC approach toward Syria since 2006, but there are no indications it will work this time given the extent of Iranian influence in Syria during the last few years. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mouallem stated in his speech that the Syrian regime is committed to fighting terrorism and to reconstruction. He said that the return of refugees is “a priority” and asked the international community to facilitate the return process. Damascus seems intent on breaking its isolation, and these impromptu meetings with Bahrain in New York could help the Syrian regime move in this direction.
Deterring Iran was a major theme in the speeches of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen, while other Arab governments that have to deal directly with Iran and its involvement in Syria had a different set of priorities. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari criticized unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and welcomed efforts toward a world free of nuclear weapons; however, he did not name either Iran or the United States in this context. Lebanon and Jordan conveyed similar concerns about the spillover of the Syrian conflict, including security challenges and the return of refugees. Jordan’s King Abdullah II reiterated his views about the way forward in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said4 that Lebanon wants the return of Syrian refugees to their home “without delay or exchange on this issue or linking it to a political solution that is unknown when it will come.”
Unresolved Arab Conflicts and Disputes
No breakthrough was achieved in the current conflicts and disputes in the Arab world. The GCC crisis was rarely discussed at the United Nations, except when mentioned briefly in speeches by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. Bahrain’s foreign minister said that “we still hope that Qatar will return to its senses” and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir noted5 that the decision to “boycott was inevitable because Qatar went far in its practices.” The Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, said the blockade on his country “has harmed the reputation of the GCC countries, and the ensuing paralysis has reflected negatively on the Council’s aspired role towards regional and global issues.” Regarding the conflict in Western Sahara, on October 1 the United Nations invited Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front to a meeting on the matter to take place in Geneva in December 2018, but the chances of a breakthrough are slim.
The Russian, Iranian, and Turkish foreign ministers met in New York on September 26 with UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, to discuss the launch of the constitutional committee in Syria which was agreed on at the National Syrian Dialogue Congress in Sochi in January 2018, in order to advance the Syria peace talks. Meanwhile, the United States held a separate meeting on September 27 along with Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Jordan, and the United Kingdom, also dealing with the launch of the constitutional committee. The objective of this meeting was to pressure de Mistura to convene a meeting for this committee before October 31. The two-track separate meetings led by Russia and the United States show the difficulties in advancing the Syrian peace talks at this stage.
The Yemeni and Libyan peace talks seem to be equally difficult to push forward. The UN effort to bring the Yemeni parties together in Geneva failed last month. UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths remains hopeful, but the two rival Yemeni groups and their regional backers are not yet ready to engage in genuine peace talks. Meanwhile, UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé noted that the election deadline this December “may not be possible to respect.” This comes after a peak in violence last month in the capital, Tripoli, which undermines UN efforts to advance a viable peace process.
During his speech before the General Assembly, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala called6 to convert the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) into a “mission of support for Libya’s security and stability.” Currently led by UN envoy Ghassan Salamé, UNSMIL was set up in 2011; transforming its role from a political to a security mission requires a resolution by the UN Security Council. While Siala did not give more details about this plan and whether he is calling for a UN peacekeeping force, it seems that the fragile internationally recognized Libyan government is looking for some sort of international support to extend its control in the country.
The United Nations General Assembly this year was rather a win for Tehran when it comes to the Middle East. The Iranian regime’s showdown with the Trump Administration weakened the leverage of Arab countries, which are increasingly divided and fragile. An ally of Tehran, the Syrian regime also scored a diplomatic victory in its rapprochement with Tehran, even though it remains to be seen how the situation will evolve in the coming months. Beyond these dynamics, Arabs returned from New York with little to show for their efforts. They left as divided as they arrived and with the same bilateral disputes and regional conflicts that are inviting all sorts of foreign intervention.