31st Arab League Summit in an Environment of Geopolitical Motion
The Arab League summits in the 1960s and 1970s had significant impacts on global politics, both on the Palestinian issue and on the oil embargo. After the defeat against Israel in 1967 and the 1978 Camp David Accords, the power of Arab countries, particularly Egypt’s, has decreased, and the Arab League summits have become far from effective. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which was followed by the US-led Gulf War, divided the Arab countries. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 also ended Iraq's claim to leadership in the Arab World. Most of the following Arab League summits turned into meetings for the sake of appearances. The Arab Spring, which started in 2011, also drove a wedge between the Arab countries that supported this process and the countries opposed.
The Qatar Embargo initiated in 2016 and the Deal of the Century project, an effort by Trump's son-in-law Kushner, were aiming to bring Israel to the center of the new Middle East. However, this process, led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has not been fully successful due to both the resistance they faced from their own public opinion and the criticisms directed against Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi murder. Even so, the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have formally normalized their relations with Israel. Although this process fell off the agenda as a result of Trump's failure to be re-elected, it also had driven a wedge between Arab countries. In this insecure environment, the conflicting Arab states had not been able to come together since 2019, and the coronavirus epidemic was an excuse for this.
The 31st Arab Countries Summit was held in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic and the Ukraine War, which directly affected the Arab World. The coronavirus has adversely affected the health sector and economies of Arab countries. Long-term closures, on the other hand, reduced the global oil demand and thus the revenues of oil-producing countries. The citizens of other Arab countries, especially those working in the Gulf countries, were also affected, and consequently, the conditions forced them to return to their home countries. Likewise, the long shutdowns have had a very negative impact on countries dependent on the tourism industry, such as the UAE, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. In fact, some Arab countries, which had difficulties finding vaccines and oxygen equipment, suffered from additional difficulties in their economies due to policies they adopted, such as long shutdowns.
Arab countries gathered in the capital of Algeria at the beginning of November 2022 and made relatively significant decisions. The level of participation, the agenda of the meeting, and the way the priorities were reflected in the final declaration were as important as the decisions themselves. In fact, the host country Algeria, was not getting along well with the Gulf countries and hence was not participating in the previous summits at a high level, and was opposing the normalization with Israel. As a sign of reciprocity, the countries that are close to normalizing relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Morocco, did not participate at the level of the president. The attempts of Iraq and Algeria to bring the Assad regime back to the Arab League have also disturbed the Gulf countries. Besides, these countries may not have wanted Algeria to become a leader in the Arab World.
However, the participation of many heads of state was sufficient to make the summit successful in this respect. For example, important countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Oman, and Iraq attended the summit at the presidential level. The invitation of President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, to the summit was one of the important participations for the summit. This was, in fact, a response to the anti-Türkiye and Azerbaijani opposition of France, which gave unconditional support to Armenia, and showed that the strengthening Türkiye-Algeria relations are real. Algeria's close relations with Russia and its energy agenda were also probably influential in this invitation.
As it is the case globally, the new development that shaped the relations between Arab countries and the relations of these countries with the great powers was the Ukraine War. The Gulf countries, (especially Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman [MBS]), which had troubled relations with the Biden administration except Qatar, remained neutral in the Ukraine War, avoiding condemning Russia and approaching the US line. Many Arab countries also adopted a neutral stance in the UN votes. Recently, Arab countries, which have cooperated within the OPEC+ body, along with Russia, have decided to reduce oil production. The Biden Administration is afraid of losing the midterm elections this month due to high oil prices, and even though it criticized Saudi Arabia for this reason, MBS did not back down.
The other reason why the OPEC+ decision disturbs the United States is that Russia, which is financially squeezed, can finance its war without losing much income thanks to high oil prices. After the election, a showdown is expected between Biden and the Saudi Arabian government on this issue. In an environment where the Ukraine War and the search for alternative energy sources intensified, another important development was the agreement between Lebanon and Israel, intermediated by the USA, to draw maritime borders and extract natural gas, as evidence of a serious geopolitical change in the Eastern Mediterranean. The agreement between the two countries, which are in conflict and not recognizing each other, and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah's non-objecting to this, was one of the serious developments in the region before the summit.
Increasing oil prices due to OPEC decisions are forcing Arab countries that do not have oil resources such as Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, to increase their oil production. The grain crisis that came with the Ukraine War also intensifies the problem in Arab countries that are dependent on imported food products. Because these countries are in an economic bottleneck due to high-priced oil and food imports, they are trying to find funds by negotiating with the IMF. Egypt was the first country to make a preliminary agreement with the IMF for a debt of 3 billion dollars at the end of October. Tunisia and Lebanon are also holding similar talks. Despite the negative effects of oil prices, the support of all countries for the OPEC decision at the Arab Summit is a clear contrast. Gulf countries, Russia, and host Algeria can be considered decisive in this regard.
The importance of the summit is also reflected in the return of Algeria to the international arena, which has adopted a low profile and been introverted for a long time. Despite being postponed several times, the Summit was an event where Algeria gave the message "I'm in too" in the diplomatic field in this critical period while traditional leading countries (such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) were in decline. Algeria has recently been more active in Libya and Tunisia, and has been implementing a more active foreign policy in the conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa and the reconciliation of the parties in the Palestinian issue. In addition, the importance of Algeria as an alternative source for Europe's natural gas and oil issues has increased recently. It is observed that Algeria, which has problems with its former colonial power, France, has started to implement more independent and versatile policies.
The internal problems and weaknesses of the participating countries, as well as the incompatibilities and even rivalries among themselves, put a limit on the effectiveness of the Arab League in the international arena. Headquartered in Cairo, the Arab League is generally under the influence of Egypt. Except for the shocks brought about by the Camp David Accord in the late 1970s, the Arab League has always acted in accordance with Egypt's foreign policy priorities. It is observed that this Summit could neither offer solutions to the Palestinian issue or problems experienced in countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya, nor present an Arab vision for global geopolitical transformations. Nevertheless, the final declaration of the summit also bears signs of some strategic changes.
Perhaps the most important decision of the summit was the statement of support for Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing countries to cut oil production in OPEC. In fact, this support is a kind of response to the criticisms directed by the USA. The support of Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, which do not have oil and suffer from high oil prices, is a sign of the weight of monetary power in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Also, in response to the rising criticism on the pretext of human rights violations in the West towards the World Cup this month in Qatar, a statement of support for Qatar came from the summit. This is a sign that the conflicts in the Gulf after the Qatar embargo have decreased considerably.
Although the Palestine question is the main issue for the Arab public and one of the reasons for the existence of the Arab League, this summit treated this issue as an ordinary topic. In response to the host country's demand for a harsher statement, countries that are close to Israel demanded that the statement be softened. At the end, the text of the decision settles for less and emphasizes only solidarity with Palestine and reconciliation between the parties. In fact, the Palestinian Authority feels weakened and hesitates to hold elections. The Palestinian people are both oppressed and despairing of peace. Taking into account the ongoing attacks and murders in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and the more radical government taking office after the last election, it could be concluded that the statements of the Arab League did nothing but only repeated the old discourses on the rights of the Palestinian people and the two-state solution.
On the other hand, Egypt's desire to register Türkiye's presence in Libya as an "occupation" was prevented by the resistance of Türkiye-friendly countries such as Algeria and Qatar. The expression of support for a peaceful solution in Libya in the statement is also partly a response to Haftar, who has recently expressed an intention to mobilize. Likewise, the expression of support for Syria's territorial integrity and a peaceful solution is something that Türkiye will applaud. In previous meetings of Arab Foreign Ministers, there was no such thing as condemning Türkiye on Syria. Attempts by Iraq and Algeria to return the Assad regime to the Arab League were also unsuccessful.
As a result, the Arab League, gathered at a critical time, has revitalized itself. It emphasized the need for cooperation among Arab countries in many political, economic, food, energy, water, and environmental fields while defending the territorial integrity of Arab countries and rejecting interventions coming from outside. At the summit, it was emphasized that the Syrian and Libyan crisis should be resolved through dialogue and that the stability of the states of Yemen, Lebanon, Somalia and Iraq is important. Even the length of this list indicates the magnitude of the Middle East's problems. More importantly, the members of the Arab League, most of whom are allies of the USA, emphasized their neutrality in the Ukraine War, which could be considered support for Putin. This summit will be remembered as an event that reveals the weaknesses of the Arab world and an effort to stir up the changing geopolitical environment.