Could Friday’s summit be Arab League’s first major transformational gathering in 20 years?

Summit will determine if Saudi Arabia succeeds in steering the Arab world toward independent policies rather than following Washington’s lead

The summit set to convene on Friday in the Saudi port city of Jeddah could be the 22-member Arab League’s first major transformational gathering in two decades.

It could determine whether Saudi Arabia succeeds in steering the Arab world toward independent policies in national, regional and international affairs rather than following Washington’s lead.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has adopted this approach as part of his plan to modernise his ultraconservative kingdom and reduce its dependence on oil.

Under Riyadh’s prodding, Arab nations have begun to reconcile with Iran, rehabilitate Syria, and adopt oil pricing policies which serve their interests. They have refused to take sides in the Ukraine war and implement sanctions against Russia. Saudis and Emiratis also regard China as a neutral mediator rather than the US, which has historically taken sides in inter-Arab disputes.


During the last significant summit in Beirut in 2002, Saudi Arabia convinced the league’s members to end their rejection of Israel and proposed full Arab normalisation in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. Israel has since sunk this proposal by expanding settlements.

Syria is to attend for the first time since its suspension from the league in 2011 for its crackdown on protests which sparked the ongoing civil war. The UN has estimated 350,000 combatants and civilians have been killed, six million displaced internally and six million driven outside the country.

Syria’s suspension was the longest ever imposed. Libya was briefly suspended from February to August 2011 for Tripoli’s harsh measures against Arab Spring protests. Egypt’s membership was frozen from 1979 to 1989 after it signed a separate peace deal with Israel, and the Arab League headquarters was transferred from Cairo to Tunis until 1990.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s participation is unlikely to discomfit Saudi or Emirati rulers who promoted reconciliation despite the fact they earlier backed armed groups which failed to overthrow him. Qatar and Kuwait, which also supported his enemies, opposed his rehabilitation.

Despite Emirati, Bahraini, Sudanese and Moroccan normalisation with Israel, the summit is unlikely to endorse Arab acceptance of this policy which has elicited sharp criticism from some Arab governments and widespread popular rejection. The Saudis have resisted US pressure to drop their demand for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem. Most Arab and Muslim governments adhere to this line.

The summit could exert pressure on Lebanon to choose a new president before a mid-June deadline. The Saudi ambassador in Beirut, Walid al-Bukhari, has played a role in trying to overcome factional bickering to secure a consensus candidate to be elected by parliament. Once a president is chosen, a government could be appointed and reforms enacted to prompt international donors and lenders to provide billions of dollars to rescue the country’s collapsed economy.

The summit appears certain to extend support for Omani and UN efforts to end the Yemen war without humiliating Saudi Arabia, which launched its failed campaign to crush the Houthi rebels in 2015. The league could also back Saudi efforts to broker a truce between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Response Forces in fighting that has killed 1,000 civilians and rendered 900,000 homeless.

The Arab League was established in March 1945, by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times