By Sylvia Westall and Amena Bakr
Arab leaders struggling with an array of foreign policy disputes opened an annual summit on Tuesday to try to forge a common stand on regional crises such as Syria’s war, and on what many of them see as the menace of Iranian-U.S. rapprochement.
The gathering in Kuwait follows an unprecedented row among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance of Gulf Arab states over Qatari support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and a verbal spat between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over violence in Iraq’s Anbar province.
The annual meeting of the 22-member League of Arab States is expected to agree on more humanitarian action in response to Syria’s war, which has entered its fourth year and put a severe strain on neighbouring countries hosting refugees.
However the row among Gulf Arab states is unlikely to take centrestage at Tuesday’s gathering.
Gulf states tend to keep their disagreements private, making a decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain earlier this month to recall their ambassadors from Qatar especially sensitive.
Kuwait, which kept its ambassador in Doha, has offered to mediate in the dispute and is anxious to see the summit take place without further divisions.
Shortly before the summit opened Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, smiling broadly, stood between Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, holding hands with them in an apparent attempt to convey a mood of reconciliation.
“WOUND IS DEEP”
But a Kuwaiti official said the dispute between Qatar and its neighbours was not expected to be on the summit’s agenda.
Asked whether the issue would be raised at the meeting, Khaled al Jarallah, Kuwaiti undersecretary for foreign affairs, told reporters: “Gulf reconciliation, and Gulf issues are something for inside the Gulf house.”
On Monday Lebanon’s foreign minister called on Arab states to support the Lebanese army to counter fallout from Syria’s civil war, which he said threatened to tear the country apart.
The meeting will also discuss other regional challenges such as Iran, which has improved long-frosty ties with Western powers since the election of President Hassan Rouhani.
Arab summits have long been dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic on which most Arab states share a common view. The “Arab Spring” uprisings that began in 2011 have polarised the region, however.
Syria’s war has stirred tensions between Sunni Muslims, notably in the Gulf, and Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, whose faith is related to that of Assad’s Alawite minority.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby has said the summit could be affected by “differences” and that there was an urgent need to clear the atmosphere.
Egypt’s foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said reconciliation would prove difficult at the summit.
“I don’t expect we will leave from the Kuwait summit with all parties convinced that all things are resolved,” he told reporters in Kuwait on Sunday. “The wound is deep.”
Syrian opposition leaders have been lobbying the Arab League to give them Syria’s seat on the pan-Arab body, and to push Arab states to approve the delivery of military hardware to them to boost their fight against Assad.
Syria’s seat will remain vacant at the summit but the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed al-Jarba, is due to deliver a speech.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations peace mediator for Syria, said on Monday it was unlikely that talks in Switzerland between the Syrian government and opposition would resume soon.
Syria’s Arab allies, including Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon, oppose support for the rebels. They point out that Islamists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, are the strongest force in the armed opposition.