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Summit goes to Riyadh
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 01 - 2007

Contrary to prior plans, Saudi Arabia decides it will host the next Arab summit, reports Dina Ezzat
Typical of Arab management of their highest-level annual congregation, the venue of the next Arab summit has been changed. Contrary to an Arab League resolution adopted last year to host the 2007 meeting of Arab leaders in Sharm El-Sheikh under the presidency of Saudi Arabia, the summit is now going to Riyadh. On Saturday, Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa announced the summit would convene in the Saudi capital upon the invitation of Saudi Arabia.
Ambassador Mohamed Qattan, Saudi permanent representative to the Arab League, said Saturday: "The ongoing developments in the Arab region and the critical situation that the Arab peoples are passing through has prompted the Saudi [monarch] to call for the convocation of the summit in Riyadh rather than Sharm El-Sheikh."
Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Moussa at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, Qattan was keen to stress that the decision is not at all an indication of any misunderstanding between allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is rather an indication that Saudi Arabia is keen to promote the cause of Arab unity. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Qattan said, "is keen to work on, and is confident that he can achieve, Arab reconciliation. Pursuing reconciliation is the prime reason behind the wish to host the summit in Riyadh."
Qattan declined to explain further why it was possible to pursue ever-illusive Arab reconciliation in Riyadh specifically. The Saudi diplomat neither would elaborate on the fact that it was Saudi Arabia who had originally called upon Egypt to host the summit.
Qattan announced that the summit will convene on 28 March and will be preceded by a set of preparatory meetings, including a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, starting 24 March.
Different accounts have been offered for the Saudi change of heart indicated for the first time a few weeks ago. Some informed Cairo-based Arab diplomats suggested that it is part of a Saudi decision to uplift its political profile as "a leading Arab country". These sources argued that while it was Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal who was in favour of convening the summit in Sharm El-Sheikh under Saudi presidency, "a new and rising" diplomatic trend in Riyadh is now in favour of moving beyond this "style of subdued diplomacy". This is consistent, they added, with "credible" speculation that Al-Faisal, after over two decades at the helm of Saudi diplomacy, might be preparing to retire, and that contenders for his succession wish to introduce their new style.
The same Arab diplomats suggest that the Saudi diplomatic corps is currently working on initiatives on a set of crucial Arab issues, including the need for reconciliation in Iraq and Lebanon. These initiatives are expected to be promoted during the Riyadh summit. "It would make sense that if the Saudis are planning an important initiative they would wish to host the summit and have the headlines coming out Riyadh, which has been showing a growing interest in assuming a higher diplomatic status on the regional front," said one source.
The Arab League has declined to offer explanation on the Saudi decision that effectively annulled a resolution adopted at the summit level. On Tuesday, Moussa told reporters that the issue was discussed and approved.
Moussa was scheduled to arrive in Libya yesterday afternoon for talks with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In 2003, Qaddafi had a very public row with the Saudi monarch -- who was crown prince at the time -- over the US military presence in the region while participating in the Arab summit hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh under the presidency of Bahrain.
Moussa declined Tuesday to offer any explanation for the short-notice trip. Sources suggest, however, that the mission of the secretary-general, upon the invitation of the Libyan leader, aims to formulate an understanding that should secure Libya's participation in the Riyadh summit.
For their part, Egyptian officials have shied away from "making an issue out of the matter". As far as Egypt is concerned, it was simply the wish of Saudi Arabia to change plans on the venue.
Egyptian officials rejected comments suggesting that the Saudi request was a result of Cairo's expression of discomfort with the proposed outcome of the congregation regarding the beefing up of US troops in Iraq as part of new and long-term regional security arrangements in the Gulf, and other resolutions related to a potential military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities.
Sources suggest that indications of this line were sensed by Cairo during the course of four meetings that were convened over the past five months for the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman), Jordan and Egypt, along with the US, to discuss the stabilisation of the Middle East.
As host of the summit, even when not the chair, Egypt would have a say in the agenda of the Arab meeting. During the 2003 summit that was chaired by Bahrain, Cairo declined to allow the secretariat of the Arab League to circulate a proposal by the delegation of the United Arab Emirates -- days before the US invasion of Iraq -- suggesting that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein should step down and seek asylum out of Iraq in order to forestall a US-led war on his country.
Arab League sources declined to foreground any resolutions of the summit. Until now, they keep to the obvious: the summit will address the situation in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia, and will seek to promote closer Arab political and economic relations, with special attention to issues of development and reform. The sources did add, however, that Moussa is planning intensive consultations during the coming weeks on the agenda and the probable outcome of the Riyadh summit.
The venue, the date and agenda of the annual Arab summit have always proven material for debate, speculation and controversy. When Arab leaders met in Cairo in October 2000 to adopt a resolution proposing the annual convocation of the Arab summit, they decided that the chairmanship of the summit would be rotated among the 22 member states of the League, and that the summit should convene at the headquarters of the Arab League unless the chair wished to host it.
In March 2001, in accordance with the plan, Jordan chaired and hosted the Arab summit. This, however, was the first and last time where the convocation of the Arab summit was a smooth operation. As of 2002, complications started to arise either due to the unwillingness of some Arab leaders for political or health reasons to host the summit, or due to the reluctance of others to have the summit hosted in a particular capital due to security and other logistical reasons.
In 2002, the UAE decided to pass its turn over to Lebanon (in accordance with the Arabic alphabet) due to the weak health of former UAE president Zayed. Controversy was high on Beirut's aptitude to host the summit and several Arab leaders absented themselves due to security concerns. In 2003, Bahrain decided it would ask Egypt to host the summit, since the Arab Gulf state played host to the US Fifth Fleet days before the US attack on Iraq. After having declared the convocation of the summit in Cairo, the meeting was moved to Sharm El-Sheikh due to logistical reasons.
In 2004, the Tunisian president postponed the summit hours before the arrival of Arab leaders for reasons that were never made clear beyond an abrupt reference to "the lack of adequate preparations". Egypt offered to host the summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, but it eventually convened in the Tunisian capital in May.
Last year, many Arab capitals called on Sudan to pass up its turn due to concerns over the ability of the civil war fatigued regime to host the summit in Khartoum, especially at a time when it was facing accusations of tolerating genocide. Sudan, however, insisted and the summit was convened.
In Khartoum, the Saudi delegation kept the closing session of the summit in suspense before announcing its wish to have Egypt play host for the 2007 summit. At the time, the Saudi delegation suggested that Sharm El-Sheikh should be a permanent venue for Arab summits. Saudi diplomats even indicated their interest in financing the construction of an adequate conference centre to be adjoined to the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League to facilitate the convocation of annual and other limited Arab summits. No such meeting venue has been constructed.


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