The Jeddah Arab League Summit: MBS’s Final Crowning

Another exercise in demagoguery was on display at the recent 32nd Arab League Summit, held on May 19 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Leaders from the league’s member states met to once again strengthen “joint Arab action based on common foundations, values, interests and one destiny,” according to the Jeddah Declaration issued at the end of the meeting. However, filled as it was with tired slogans, rehashed pronouncements, and insincere promises to work toward a better future for the Arab world, the gathering was little more than the final crowning of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) as the leader of the current Arab political order.

Along with this crowning came the rehabilitation of one of the Arab world’s most culpable leaders, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over the destruction of his own country and the killing and displacement of his people. The crowning of MBS was also accompanied by the glossing over of some Arab countries’ normalization agreements with Israel, which have helped the Zionist state conduct an ever-harsher campaign against the Palestinians under its occupation and to expand its plan to gradually annex the occupied Palestinian territories. The meeting also merely paid lip service to ending the bloody conflict in Sudan and the suffering of its people, and also made only brief mention of Yemen, where MBS is pursuing a peace deal with the country’s Houthi insurgents, who in 2014 succeeded in usurping power in the country’s capital, Sanaa.

Rehabilitating Assad

Perhaps the starkest development in the recent round of Arab meetings that culminated in the summit in Jeddah was the readmission of Syria on May 7 into the League of Arab States after 12 years of ostracism, as well as the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime and its president. Assad was invited to and attended the Jeddah gathering on May 19, feeling comfortable enough to lecture his colleagues, stating, “It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage them.” Only Qatar opposed Syria’s readmission, and its emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to his credit, left the summit meeting before Assad delivered his remarks, which can only be understood as a triumphalist exercise in hubris by a man who for a dozen years was happy to forego his Arab brethren for a blood-soaked alliance with Iran and Russia.

Only Qatar opposed Syria’s readmission, and its emir left the summit meeting before Assad delivered his remarks.

Coming on the heels of the March 10 China-brokered Saudi-Iran entente, Assad’s rehabilitation into the Arab world cannot be isolated from MBS’s drive to fashion an Arab order that he can lead as he succeeds his ailing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Accepting Assad back into the Arab fold sends a signal to Tehran that Riyadh is sincere about its opening up of relations and that the Arab world is ready to let bygones be bygones in its relations with the Islamic Republic and to forget about the deleterious impacts of the latter’s interference in Arab affairs. Noteworthy is the fact that Saudi Arabia previously championed the effort to reject Syria’s readmission into the Arab League at its 31st summit in Algeria in November 2022, saying that Damascus needed to distance itself from Tehran and Hezbollah. Even Egypt, a longtime proponent of rehabilitating Syria, agreed with the Saudi position at the time.

Six months on, nothing has really changed in Syria, and its rehabilitation came without any strings attached, at least not to the analytical naked eye. Assad has not initiated any political reform, however modest, to satisfy the kingdom or the league’s members; the regime has no plan for the return and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons; and Iran remains firmly ensconced in the country. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries approving Syria’s readmission to the league appear to have rehabilitated Assad and his regime despite the crimes carried out by his war machine, which was aided and abetted by Iran-friendly militias—especially Hezbollah—that provided foot soldiers for his destructive mission. To be sure, Assad the autocrat rejoined his autocratic brethren after proving that he could hold his ground despite facing many challenges, some of which may beset the rest of the league’s members in the future.

What is ironic is that Saudi Arabia was, and apparently remains, prepared to pay the Syrian government $4 billion in exchange for serious action to stop the Captagon trade that has become an epidemic the kingdom. It is hard to see this as anything but paying ransom to the Syrian regime that itself has benefited from manufacturing and exporting the drug, particularly at a time when the Biden administration is about to announce its own declaration of war against said trade. Assad is also reportedly resisting efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees from neighboring countries unless Arab states, specifically those in the Gulf, underwrite funds for reconstructing the infrastructure that his war has destroyed. In the end, Assad’s rehabilitation is likely to exact a high price from Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, just so that MBS can claim to have succeeded in corralling all the Arab leaders under his leadership as part of his quest for what he thinks is a pivotal role that he and his country will play for years to come.

All Is Normal with the Normalizers

At last November’s Algeria Arab Summit meeting, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune—incidentally a longstanding supporter of readmitting Syria into the Arab League—took the opportunity to reaffirm Arab solidarity with the Palestinians and to decry Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands. His opening remarks at the meeting were understood to extend to those Arab countries that had normalized with Israel—at the time, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—despite Israel’s continued military occupation and its denial of Palestinians’ rights. By contrast, the Jeddah gathering was rather mild on the issue of normalization, with the final communique not even mentioning the topic or referring to Israel as an occupying power. What was present in the communique was a reiteration of the Arab world’s adherence to the principles of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the focal point of which is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the land occupied by Israel in 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital.

The Jeddah gathering was rather mild on the issue of normalization, with the final communique not even mentioning the topic.

While calling for the establishment of such a state is the required stance in the eyes of the people of the Arab world, ignoring the negative impact of normalization with Israel on this demand smacks of demagoguery. Normalizing with Israel and allowing it easy access to the Arab political order has sidelined the Palestinian cause in favor of protecting and promoting normalizing states’ interests. For example, in 2020, the UAE signed a $10 billion trade deal with Israel, and bilateral relations between the two countries are only improving, despite the arrival of right-wing Israeli politicians at the pinnacle of power. Israeli occupation and settlement policies today have made the two-state solution an empty phrase that Arab leaders use for public consumption, lest they be accused of completely forgetting about the issue that their citizens still consider to be the main concern of Arabs everywhere, as recent opinion polls have made clear.

Indeed, forgetting about the normalizers gives Saudi Arabia under MBS’s leadership a segue into its own normalization with Israel when the time comes. Although Saudi Arabia is still not fully on board with normalization, there has been a major push by the Biden administration and the Israeli government to get Riyadh to take the plunge, given the right incentives, including cooperation on Iran, reopening talks with the Palestinians, and economic steps further linking the two countries’ economies. By being in control of the Arab political order, as was made apparent at the Jeddah Summit, MBS can ensure a smooth environment for opening relations with Israel, whatever the impact on the Palestinians and their cause. Such a gamble may be worth the effort, and may work well in his quest to make himself and the kingdom a pivotal geostrategic actor in the Middle East, to be courted by the likes of the United States, China, Russia, and Europe.

Important Self-Serving Mentions

As the Jeddah Declaration indicates, Sudan and Yemen also commanded some of the member states’ time and attention, even though their troubles did not appear to warrant specific actionable solutions. Their inclusion in the communique was commonplace Arab summit fare for countries in conflict, although many of the Jeddah attendees are involved on one side of the two conflicts or another, in ways that prevent the war-torn countries from achieving the needed political, economic, and social peace they deserve.

In Sudan, the conflict between the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, leader of the Rapid Support Forces General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, is one between two unaccountable and autocratic military officers vying for control of the Sudanese state and its institutions. To be sure, the war is of their own making; but both of them are supported or favored by Arab states, with each one claiming external recognition and legitimacy. Egypt looks with favor upon General Burhan because he better represents the country’s armed forces, and is seen as being more in line with Cairo’s interests. Dagalo, meanwhile, relies on the UAE for support and assistance. While Saudi Arabia and the United States have succeeded in forcing the warring parties to respect a shaky cease-fire, Saudi-sponsored negotiations between the two sides have so far failed to reach a solution to the conflict, to the detriment of millions of affected Sudanese. Given that participants in the Jeddah Summit are actively supporting the Sudan conflict’s main actors, it is easy to point to the meeting’s calls to end the conflict as mere exercises in demagogic rhetoric by insincere leaders.

The meeting’s calls to end the conflict in Sudan seemed to be mere exercises in demagogic rhetoric by insincere leaders.

Regarding Yemen, Saudi Arabia has engaged the Houthis in Oman-aided negotiations that the kingdom hopes will end its own involvement and participation in the country’s civil war. The negotiations have not yet arrived at a final solution to the conflict or charted an honorable and acceptable end to Riyadh’s role in it. But what is evident is that by accepting to negotiate directly with the Houthis, Saudi Arabia has allowed them to claim supremacy and control over northern Yemen, to the detriment of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC), headed by Rashad al-Alimi, that Riyadh was instrumental in creating in early 2022. The PLC is also negotiating with the Houthis on a separate, Yemen-specific track. But the country’s problems will not be fully addressed if Saudi Arabia and the Houthis find an acceptable solution and the kingdom departs the Yemen quagmire. Many issues will still await resolution, including the distribution of oil revenues, the Southern Transitional Council’s—a component of the PLC—demand for independence in the South, and control over seaports and export outlets. Needless to say, another actor in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, will also have to be satisfied with the ultimate resolution of the country’s problems because of its economic and strategic interests in the South, the Gulf of Aden, and along the Red Sea coast.

Attendees of the Arab League summit did not forget to mention the need for Lebanese politicians to arrive at a solution to Lebanon’s protracted presidential vacuum, now approaching its eighth month. They also rightly called for ending foreign interference in Arab countries’ affairs and the formation of militias and armed groups outside the control of official state institutions. But the fact that Arab leaders have accepted Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation into the Arab League after Iran helped secure his survival and Hezbollah’s militia fought on his behalf, as well as the fact that Saudi Arabia is negotiating with the Houthis—a militia that usurped Yemen’s legitimate rule—makes such mentions mere boilerplate statements not worthy of consideration.

MBS Crowned, But…

There can be no doubt that Mohammed bin Salman has succeeded in using the 32nd Arab League Summit to help make himself the undisputed Arab leader in times of serious regional and international change. Such a crowning will help him increase Saudi Arabia’s economic clout by adding geostrategic heft in his dealings with the United States, China, Russia, Europe, and others. But his new stature requires that he work toward real change in the Arab political and economic order, rather than merely making empty pronouncements about Arab unity and common destiny. His record so far—entering the Yemeni quagmire in 2015, ordering the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and abetting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—does not provide assurance that he will be able to help steer the Arab world in the right direction. On the contrary, his rehabilitation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, his flirtation with normalization with Israel, his failure to bring peace to Sudan, and his having abandoned allies in Yemen all speak to his tendency to secure whatever serves his personal interest and not much else.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: SPA