ANALYSIS - Arab rifts remain after 'reconciliation' summit


  • World
  • Wednesday, 01 Apr 2009

DOHA (Reuters) - Billed as an opportunity for Arab reconciliation, this week's Arab summit failed to resolve a raft of issues linked to the rising power of Iran.

The tiny Gulf Arab state of Qatar is seeking to match its natural gas wealth with a regional powerbroker role and was careful to neutralise the major conflicts in advance.

Iran's President Ahmedinejad had attended a crisis meeting in Doha during Israel's war on Gaza and was invited by Qatar to a Gulf Arab summit in December 2007. But he was not invited to this summit.

"The Arabs have a habit of kicking any big problem into the long grass so that was the big agreement here," said Adel Darwish, a London-based analyst who was in Doha for the summit.

Arab governments have struggled to respond to Iran's increased political clout since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought long-oppressed Shi'ites there to power.

The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia see Iran's hand behind the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories -- groups who refuse to renounce armed action in the historic Arab conflict with Israel.

They blame Syria and Qatar for facilitating this with populist rhetoric they consider irresponsible.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh this month for fence-mending talks with King Abdullah ahead of the Doha summit. Arab media reports say they agreed to keep arguments over their allies in Lebanon outside the Doha summit.

Those moves secured the Saudi monarch's presence but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stayed away, angry over what Cairo regards as Doha's meddling in its turf by organising mediation efforts between Palestinians that embolden Hamas.

"Egypt has all respect for all Arab states, big and small ... and always speaks for the small ones. But none should attack it," a speech, read out in Mubarak's name, said in a jibe at Qatar.

Saudi Arabia is more keen than most Arab countries to create a united Arab front on Iran. It fears Washington will come to an agreement with Iran recognising it as the Gulf regional power, thus creating a possible threat to Al Saud family rule.

Last week, hawkish Interior Minister Prince Nayef was made second deputy prime minister in a move analysts said strengthened his claim to the throne.

During the summit, Abdullah even swallowed an insult from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. While apologising for an argument at a summit in 2003, Gaddafi repeated his charge that the kingdom was "created by Britain" and has "American protection".

But Abdullah sat with Gaddafi later in what Saudi delegation members said was a grudging rapprochement for the sake of unity. Saudi media have also ceased attacking Qatar and Syria for the moment.

STRONG LANGUAGE ON SUDAN

The summit used strong language in defence of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over his indictment by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. It talked of "rejection" of the indictment rather than suspension, which some moderates had favoured.

Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi who was in Doha for the summit, said the Arab states who valued close ties with Washington would be less willing to receive Bashir, despite the show of support for him in Doha.

The summit was a "facade" of unity, he said.

The language on an Arab peace initiative with Israel was tame despite powerful rhetoric from Syria's Assad towards Israel in his opening speech.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the summit had avoided a tough line on Israel. "We hoped Arab leaders would use all their cards to pressure the Zionist occupation (Israel) to recognise the rights of our people and end the siege (of Gaza)," he said.

Gaddafi used the closing session to attack the initiative for avoiding the phrase "return of refugees", reopening an argument that its Saudi and Egyptian backers thought closed. The plan, which remains on the table, calls only for "solving" the Palestinian refugee question.

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