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30 March 2017

Once a year not enough

By: Daoud Kuttab
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Once a year, leaders of the Arab world meet in one of the Arab countries’ capital for a day to go over statements and decisions previously agreed upon by their respective foreign ministers.
 
The Arab summit has gone up and down in terms of importance.
 
During Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, they were quite important. Then they started losing steam in the absence of a clear and undisputed single Arab leader.
 
At times, the summits were delayed for years due to disagreement, until, a few years ago, it was decided that the summit will take place every year regardless of whether there is total agreement on all issues or not.
 
The place, by rotation, was chosen in alphabetical order. The new policy seems to have worked in the last few years. But these once-a-year Arab summits are rarely well attended.
 
This year’s summit, featuring 16 Arab leaders, is considered extraordinary and a tribute to the Jordanian King and government’s regional role and importance.
 
For comparison, we should take a look at other regional blocks and see how often they meet and how high their attendance rate is.
 
The number of meetings of the European Council, for example, grew from a minimum of four per year between 1996 and 2007 to a minimum of six per year since 2008 and from 2008 to 2015, an average of seven council meetings per year took place.
 
As to attendance, most meetings record a 100 per cent attendance of the principal leaders.
 
While it might be unfair to compare ourselves to Europe, it is important to notice that ASEAN summits take place twice a year and the African summit, which always takes place in Addis Ababa, also features regular meetings, though the attendance rate is not as high as of Europeans.
 
Summits are important for regional cooperation, resolving conflicts and finding civilised forums to deal with problems that exist between nations.
 
Unfortunately, in the Arab world, and despite having the same language and culture, the problems are often resolved not at summits but are left to security service meetings and, in worst-case scenarios, to violent clashes.
 
We need to have our leaders and senior officials meet much more often. The summits must be held regularly and often to deal with the long list of problems and grievances that exist in the region.
 
Summits have been traditionally judged more on their public closing statement than on any serious decisions taken by the leaders.
 
The serious decisions are usually taken in the only regional gatherings that meet without delay, the interior minister’s meetings.
 
Decisions by the principal individuals who are able and willing to carry them out can go a long way in making the institution of Arab summit a serious one.
 
Palestine, of course, has been the one topic that every single Arab summit tackled in its final communiqué.
 
Again, the gap between what was said to be agreed to and what got carried out is one of the reasons many Arabs have long lost trust in the idea of an Arab summit.
 
Economic cooperation is perhaps one of the examples of lack of progress made at Arab summits.
 
Inter-Arab trade is at a terrible low, a single percentage point. The situation is so bad that at times Arab countries often buy Arab products that were actually exported to a European country.
 
A look at inter-Arab airlines versus Arab-European ones can best explain this sad situation.
 
Restrictions and bureaucratic delays are not limited to goods but also to people. Inter-Arab travel is still highly restricted, with many non-Arabs having a much easier time entering Arab countries than fellow Arabs.
 
The list goes on and on, reflecting the absence of serious cooperation and presenting the huge challenges.
 
Our leaders have an obligation to their people to go beyond rhetoric and polemics and make tough and courageous decisions that can contribute to making our region a better one.
 
The Arab world has so much to give to its people, provided political leaders put aside their personal ambitions and pride, roll their sleeves and work hard to solve problems.
 
Meetings need to take place more often and all leaders need to participate.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net



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