Heroism and Tragedy in Arab Summitry

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Arab summit meetings have always exuded a sense of noble and heroic tragedy, and the summit here in Amman this week is no different. A total of 22 regular or emergency summits have been held since 1964, every one of them gripping in its expectations and political drama, yet usually falling short of peoples high expectations.

Arabs and foreign observers alike tend to see Arab summits through simplistic lenses that define such phenomena in black-and-white, good-and-bad terms. Either this is a fine tradition of Arabs collectively agreeing on a united position on the issues that concern them, or Arab summitry is seen as a romantic bag of political hot air that unfailingly disappoints the Arab people and leads to no concrete or meaningful action. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Arab summitry is noble and heroic because, despite all odds, it insistently affirms that the Arab people feel they share important things in common. Those things certainly include language, religion, culture, historical experiences and memories, economic potentialities, and contemporary strategic concerns. Consequently, most Arabs instinctively feel that they share that primal combination of values, identity, language, and experience that usually define a nation.

But, the Arab World is not a single nation in the formal sense. It is divided into (at last count) 22 broadly sovereign countries that are often in conflict or competition with one another, and sometimes wage war against each other. At the same time, they keep meeting at head-of-state level to try and forge common positions on issues of importance to their people. This perseverance in seeking a unified position and promoting common action, in the face of chronic inter-Arab tensions, is noble and heroic in my book. It tells us much about the underlying sentiments that still define most of the Arab people and their leaders.

The tragic dimension to Arab summitry, on the other hand, is that such gatherings have rarely resulted in concrete achievements that go beyond the fine rhetoric of a common declared position. The results of past summits have consistently disappointed the high expectations of the Arab people, especially on the two issues that have most often engaged the attention of the heads of state: the Palestine question and inter-Arab economic integration.

The tragic dimension of Arab summitry seems to be compounded by recent developments that make it even more difficult to achieve a common position on important questions. The two big political issues at this summit are Iraq and Palestine, issues on which the Arab world suffers deep structural fault lines. About half the Arab states rely directly or indirectly on the United States for military protection, economic support, or vital trade opportunities, and two states (Jordan and Egypt) have peace accords with Israel. This group of Arab states will find it difficult to engage in stringent anti-Israeli measures that are demanded by their people or by other Arab states, for fear of American reprisals.

Similarly, in return for easing the economic embargo against Iraq, key Arab Gulf states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia require ironclad guarantees that Iraq will not threaten them again as it did in 1990-91 — quite a reasonable request. In the wake of the Gulf war of a decade ago, we still suffer a real and deep divide among Arabs who support either Iraq or Kuwait and its partners in the Gulf. That division has raised its head very explicitly at this weeks summit. Papering it over with a vaguely worded statement would be a rather useless act.

The conclusion of this sort of analysis is not very heartening. Arab summits reveal the wide gap and clear contradiction between two trends: on the one hand, individual Arab countries naturally look out for their own well-being and national self-interest, while on the other hand these same states are asked to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of a common pan-Arab position. So, for example, Egypt and Jordan will support summit plans to back the Palestinian people, but they will not formally break diplomatic relations with Israel. Or, Syria will passionately argue for the right of the Palestinians to wage armed resistance against Israel, but will not allow attacks against Israel from Syrian territory. Or, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will work to remove economic sanctions on the Iraqi people, but will continue to host American and British troops that routinely attack Iraqi targets.

The clear pattern that has emerged in recent years shows that individual Arab states will genuinely support pan-Arab positions, but not at the expense of their own national interests. That, in short, is the stuff of noble and heroic tragedy, giving us cause to hope and despair at the same time. It also raises important questions about the meaning of Arabism and Arab identity in today’s world, and the relationship between the modern Arab state and its citizen.

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