Arab leaders gathered in the Algerian capital on Tuesday for their first summit since a string of normalisation deals with Israel that have divided the region.
Since the last Arab League summit in 2019, several members of the 22-member bloc — for decades a forum for strident declarations of support for the Palestinian cause — have normalised ties with the Jewish state.
The United Arab Emirates went first in a historic US-mediated deal that made the country the third Arab state, after Egypt and Jordan, to establish full ties with Israel.
The UAE’s move sparked similar accords with Bahrain and Morocco — and a provisional agreement with Sudan — deepening Morocco’s decades-old rivalry with its neighbour Algeria.
This week’s summit, postponed several times due to the coronavirus pandemic, coincides with elections in Israel that could see hawkish ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu return to power with his far-right allies.
Algeria remains a steadfast supporter of the Palestinians, even mediating a reconciliation deal in October between rival factions Fatah and Hamas.
While few believe the deal will last, it was seen as a public relations coup for Algeria, which has been seeking more regional clout on the back of its growing status as a gas exporter following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This week’s summit is another opportunity for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to push that agenda forward, despite high-profile Arab leaders being absent from the summit.
He has rolled out the red carpet for his guests, including his Egyptian, Palestinian and Tunisian counterparts Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Mahmud Abbas and Kais Saied respectively, as well as Qatar’s Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani.
– Charm offensive –
The main roads of Algiers have been decked out with national flags and huge billboards welcoming “brother Arabs”, ahead of a dinner hosted by Tebboune.
“Algerian foreign policy has gone on the offensive at the regional, African and Arab levels,” said Geneva-based expert Hasni Abidi.
But Algeria has also been unnerved by Morocco’s security and defence cooperation with Israel, adding to decades of mistrust fuelled by a dispute over the Western Sahara.
The status of Western Sahara –– a former Spanish colony considered a “non-self-governing territory” by the United Nations –– has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front since the 1970s.
In August 2021, Algiers cut diplomatic ties with Rabat alleging “hostile acts”.
Participants in the summit face the challenge of formulating a final resolution, which has to be passed unanimously.
With conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen also on the agenda, sources say foreign ministers are trying to reach consensus on the wording around Turkish and Iranian “interference” in the region — and whether to mention Ankara and Tehran by name or not.
“The paradox of this summit is that it’s being billed as a unifying event, whereas each Arab state actually has its own agenda and goals fitting its interests,” Abidi said.
“So ultimately the Arab League is the perfect mirror of Arab foreign policy.”
That point is underlined by the absence of several key figures, notably Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, reported to have an ear infection, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were also no-shows.
“The Arab states which have normalised with Israel are not enthusiastic about the idea of a coming together to condemn their position,” said Abidi.
– Syria’s membership –
Another source of controversy has been Algeria’s efforts to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime back into the Arab League, a decade after its membership was suspended amid a brutal crackdown on 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests.
Abidi said those “highly risky” efforts had been shelved.
President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s key backer, sent a message saying Russia was committed to cooperation with the league to boost “security”.
Putin called for conflicts “be resolved on the basis of generally accepted international law and a commitment to strict respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries.”
Pierre Boussel of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) said Russia backed Syria’s return but had decided not to force it through “in a way that would have affected its relations with Arab countries already badly scalded by the economic impact of the Ukrainian conflict”.
Commodity importers, notably Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan, have been hit especially hard by soaring prices of wheat and oil, even as energy-producing Arab states have seen their coffers swell.