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James M. Dorsey

Arab and Muslim leaders put limited influence and differences on display.

Arab and Muslim states display limited influence

It took Arab and Muslim leaders 35 days of war to call an ‘emergency’ meeting to discuss Israel’s assault on Gaza. Their limited ability to influence developments was on public display when they finally gathered this weekend in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

So were the differences that raised questions about efforts in recent years to sustainably reduce regional tensions without resolving fundamental disputes and conflicts.

The joint summit of the Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which includes all Arab states, was dominated by obligatory calls for an immediate ceasefire, unrestricted provision of humanitarian aid, the release by Hamas of 240, mostly civilian, hostages, and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as condemnation of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war.

Hypocritically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who waged a decade-long Russian and Iranian-backed war against rebels opposed to his regime in much the same way that Israel attacked Gaza, attended the Riyadh summit.

Arab states returned Mr. Al-Assad to the Arab fold as part of their effort to reduce regional tensions and ensure they don’t spin out of control. The Arab League suspended Syria in 2011 at the beginning of the civil war.

In his address to the summit, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made clear that the Chinese-mediated restoration earlier this year of diplomatic relations between the Islamic republic and Saudi Arabia as part of the regional de-escalation effort had done nothing to change policies that are at the root of many regional issues.

To be sure, most Islamic and Arab leaders will have taken heart from Mr. Raisi’s support of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and his expressed desire to prevent the war from expanding regionally.

But that is where the sighs of relief may have stopped.

Much of Mr. Raisi’s speech emphasized what countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worry most about and highlighted fundamental policy differences.

Mr. Raisi celebrated Hamas and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, non-state actors viewed in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as Iranian proxies designed to interfere in Arab domestic affairs.

“We kiss the hands of Hamas for its resistance against Israel,” Mr. Raisi said.

In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite being shocked by the indiscriminate and relentless Israeli bombing of Gaza, do not want Hamas, a group they view as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, survive the war.

Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack, in which at least 1,200, mostly civilian, Israelis were wantonly slaughtered, raised the spectre of other militant groups, foremost Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis, learning from the Palestinians’ ability to breach Israeli defenses.

Moreover, Mr. Raisi was out of step with much of the Arab world by calling for a Palestinian state from “the river to the sea” that would replace the State of Israel rather than a two-state resolution, involving an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

Notwithstanding Mr. Raisi’s remarks, the summit’s majority view prevailed with the final communique calling for a two-state solution.

Furthermore Mr. Raisi put Arab and Muslim-majority states that have recognized Israel on the spot by calling on them to break off their diplomatic relations. Of the five Arab states that have formal relations with Israel, only Jordan has withdrawn its ambassador and asked Israel not to return its envoy to Amman.

Mr. Raisi also called for an economic and commercial boycott of Israel.

Iranian officials, backed by Libya, Algeria and Lebanon, demanded in preliminary talks in advance of the summit that Arab states close their airspace to Israel, halt the transfer of weapons from US bases in the region to Israel, and stop oil exports to Israel, according to diplomatic sources.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke immediately before Mr. Raisi, did not include Iran’s positions in his remarks. However, Turkish steps come closest to addressing the Iranian leader’s demands.

Turkey has withdrawn its ambassador to Israel and, earlier this week, suspended energy talks with the Jewish state.

Mr. Raisi had barely spoken when Beirut-based Hamas Political Bureau member Osama Hamdan echoed his words in an Al Jazeera interview.

“We are talking about actions, we don’t need speeches,” Mr. Hamdan said.

At the same time, Mr. Hamdan echoed a broader sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world, by adding,” if (Arab and Muslim leaders) act, I am sure there will be a response from the United States. Any action will have impact.”

What Mr. Hamdan suggested was that by speaking out forcefully, and taking some sort of action, no matter how minor, Arab and Muslim leaders could move the needle in Washington that has so far supported Israel’s right to wage war against Hamas, even if US officials increasingly criticize the human cost of Israel’s campaign.

That didn’t prevent the differences from forcing the Arab and Muslim leaders to issue a statement that echoed the leaders’ obligatory demands but contained no suggestion of how they could be achieved.

At a news conference after the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan sought to give the statement some heft by asserting that without concerted international action to reign in Israel, the world’s international security architecture, including the United Nations Security Council, would need to be reformed.

All eyes in the coming days will be on the Council’s next meeting slated to discuss yet another draft resolution initiated by Malta and the UAE. The draft is believed to focus on the plight of children that reportedly account for half of all casualties in Gaza.

Another focal point is US President Joe Biden’s meeting on Monday with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo. Mr. Widodo travelled from the Riyadh summit to Washington in advance of this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco.

For Arab and Muslim leaders, increasingly squeezed between mounting public anger at the Israeli assault, limited options, and a struggle to prevent Gaza from shifting the paradigm on which they have built their survival strategies, pushing the US to forcefully call a halt to Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, ensuring access to humanitarian personnel and goods, and achieving a release of hostages is a sine qua non.

Ironically, Israel’s relentless military campaign, including the stepped up targeting of hospitals, may achieve what Arab and Muslim leaders can’t as US and European officials, amid widespread protests, increasingly take Israel publicly to task.

In the latest shift, French President Emmanuel Macron told the BBC on Saturday: “De facto – today, civilians are bombed – de facto. These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So, there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.”

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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