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A Hopeless Summit of Arab Countries

After a two-year hiatus, the Arab League will convene in Algiers in November against a backdrop of uncertainty and discord.

by Pierre Boussel
Published on October 20, 2022

The upcoming Arab League summit that will be held on November 1st and 2nd was to be the great reunion of the Arab world, as President Putin hoped that this 31st summit would celebrate Syria’s return to the Arab fold after a decade of exclusion. However, it was not to be; Saudi Arabia and Egypt blocked the move, citing a failure to implement the longstanding League plan for the Syrian crisis, and the now 11-year old civil war threatens to escalate. The Syrian government has chosen to not send a delegation to Algiers, preferring an extension of its isolation over the humiliation of rejection

This is a blow to Russia’s diplomatic strategy, which has invested considerable resources to demonstrate that it is a reliable partner for Arab countries by signing cooperation agreements and launching other diplomatic initiatives. The war in Ukraine has thrown a spanner in the works, showing that Moscow is not the ally it claims to be. Moreover, a food crisis is now affecting the members of the League; just this month, the IMF Managing Director said that 141 million people in the Arab world are currently exposed to food insecurity, which has been significantly exacerbated by rampant inflation and shortages in essential goods caused by the Ukraine crisis. These dynamics have led to drastic behaviors, such as an uptick in the cross-border trafficking of flour, and have created a dire economic and social situation, setting the scene for further unrest.  

Regarding this crisis, the attendees of the Algiers summit will have to grapple with the agricultural and energy challenges revealed by the Ukraine war. The first is the obsolete nature of Arab agriculture in the face of global shortages. With few notable exceptions, the region remains import-dependent, as a lack of arable land and water shortages combine with political instability to restrict the capacities of domestic farms to keep up with demand. Relatedly, there is an urgent need to reorganize grain supply channels (as just one startling example, in 2020, around 80 percent of Lebanon’s wheat imports came from Ukraine). Finally, regional states must consider how to redesign new energy routes equipped to confront the coming transition to renewable energies, along with the trade of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is emerging as an alternative to Russian gas.  

This summit will also be the first gathering of Arab League countries since the Abraham Accords were concluded in 2020. Will the current shared crises help overcome what Algerian President Tebboune has called “the emergence of divergences and disagreements”? This is not certain, as the trend of normalization in Arab-Israeli relations has created a sharp divide between the Accord’s signatories and the states which have so far refused to take this step.  

While the main task of the Algiers summit will be to demonstrate that dialogue can prevail over discord, the League is further divided between two broad political tendencies. Some call for unity and autonomy, including Egyptian President Sisi, who has proposed “blocking the road to all foreign interventions.” The aim of leaders like Sisi is to resist entanglement in the current East-West tensions. Others like Syria and Sudan, however, accept the parallels to the Cold War period by aligning with either the United States-Israel bloc or Russia. Algeria seems to have chosen the latter. In the wake of the summit, joint Russian-Algerian anti-terrorism exercises, "Desert Shield 2022," will be held at the Hamkir military base

Critics of the League say that in its seventy-seven years of existence, the organization has never succeeded in establishing a strong Arab voice on the international stage. The solution could be an overhaul of the organization's statutes, particularly the League’s unanimity-based decision-making process, to improve efficiency. This project has haunted Arab diplomats for years, but as with the current crises, there is no unanimity on the issue of reform.

Pierre Boussel is a columnist and an associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS-Paris). His work focuses on armed groups in the Arab world and political Islam.