Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Summit: Consolidating Saudi Dominance and Ambitions

The upcoming Arab League summit will show the increasing dominance of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world.

Arab Summit
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud attends the 43rd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 09, 2022. Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

The 32nd Arab Summit that Saudi Arabia is preparing to host marks a significant milestone for the Gulf state. Scheduled for 19 May 2023, the summit shows how the Saudi’s political influence has reached an unprecedented level in the Arab world.

The Jeddah’s summit also solidifies Saudi Arabia’s role as the affluent Gulf kingdom leading collective Arab action. In addition, it symbolises the unofficial ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and marks a new era for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

Multiple Objectives

The Arab Summit is traditionally a protocol-driven event, without anything out of expectations. However, this time, the Syrian regime returns to the Arab League after years of exclusion due to the ongoing crisis that began in Syria in 2011.

Expectations for this summit hinge also on the success of Saudi diplomacy in utilising its influence to impose a ceasefire between the warring parties in Sudan. Such an achievement could bridge the traditional gap between the aspirations of the Arab masses and their political leaders.

Bin Salman aims to put an end to the ongoing war between the Sudanese Army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”. In this regard, Saudi sources confirmed to Fanack that the Crown Prince has put his regional and international influence at stake to end the Sudanese conflict.

Despite the optimism enveloping the negotiations held in Jeddah between representatives of the two sides, the clashes continue in various parts of Sudan, particularly in Khartoum.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan hopes that the dialogue will ultimately end the conflict, start the political process and restore security and stability to Sudan.

According to the Saudi minister, hosting the negotiations is not only a reaffirmation of Saudi Arabia’s international standing. It is also a testament to “the result of international cooperation achieved through intensive efforts with the United States, in partnership with the Quad and the Trilateral Mechanism.”

Aligned with the global and regional expectations vested in Saudi mediation efforts in Sudan, the Saudi Crown Prince welcomed national security advisors from the UAE, the United States, and India.

According to Saudi sources, other officials from Arab and Western countries are converging in the Kingdom. These discussions primarily focused on the situation in Sudan, taking into account the Saudi-led mediation involving the United States and the United Nations.

However, the Saudi Press Agency provided minimal details about the meetings. The agency stated that the meetings primarily aimed to enhance relations and cooperation between these advisors’ countries and Saudi Arabia, focusing on promoting regional growth and stability.

Despite the existing strains in Saudi-US relations, the Saudi Crown Prince met with a US delegation led by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Notably, the White House acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s support during the evacuation of American citizens from Sudan, expressing gratitude to the Saudi Crown Prince.

Many regard Prince Mohammed as the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom. However, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud officially carries out his duties. During a government meeting in Jeddah chaired by the Saudi king, he closely monitored the developments in Sudan.

The meeting served as an opportunity to formally announce the “kingdom’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in resolving the crisis and restoring security and stability in Sudan.”

However, a Saudi diplomat informed Agence France-Presse that significant progress has yet to be achieved. The diplomat highlighted that a permanent ceasefire is not currently on the table, given that each party involved believes they can achieve victory in the ongoing conflict.

Well-informed Arab sources told Fanack of a comprehensive “Saudi plan to resolve problems.” The plan encompasses Saudi Arabia’s relations with neighbouring countries and broader regional issues. According to the sources, the Kingdom aims to “extinguish political and military fires in the region.”

Saudi Arabia notably spearheaded Syria’s reinstatement into the Arab League, a significant development that Algeria hoped to achieve last year during its hosting of the last Arab summit. The absence of Saudi Arabia and most Gulf countries from that summit dashed Algeria’s hopes.

Anonymous Arab sources revealed that Algeria’s failure to bring al-Assad back into the Arab fold fueled silent frustration. Therefore, Saudi Arabia sought to address this frustration through a special visit by its Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, to Algeria.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry’s statement indicated that Bin Farhan’s meeting with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune aimed to persuade him to attend the upcoming Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, especially since he chairs the current session of the Arab League Council.

After his meeting with Tebboune, Bin Farhan hoped that his visit would secure Algeria’s participation, pending Saudi Arabia chairing the coming summit.” According to the Saudi Minister, bilateral and multilateral coordination and cooperation serve not only the two countries, but also the security and stability of the Arab world and the wider region.

Saudi Wants All to Attend

Arab Summit
Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia meets Bashar al-Assad on April 18, 2023 in Damascus, Syria. Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry/Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP.

To reflect its regional and international stature, Saudi Arabia is actively seeking the attendance of all Arab leaders at its upcoming summit. To reach this goal, Riyadh Saudi Arabia leverages its political and diplomatic influence to ensure an unprecedented level of Arab participation .

The Kingdom aims to secure the attendance of Moroccan King Mohammed VI at the summit, with the hope of a symbolic handshake between him and Tebboune. Such an interaction would inaugurate a new symbolic breakthrough in the strained relations between Morocco and Algeria.

After a 12-year absence from Arab summits, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is anticipated to attend the upcoming Jeddah summit.

Al-Assad’s presence is an instance of pragmatic Saudi policy. Riyadh’s methodology strives not just to resolve regional issues, but also to prepare Arab countries for a new era amidst the Russian-American conflict over the region.

Despite objections from certain Arab partakers, Saudi Arabia has secured Arab consensus on Syria’s reinstatement into the official Arab stage. Observers see this step as indicative of a shift in the regional approach toward the Syrian crisis. They perceive al-Assad’s symbolic attendance at the forthcoming Arab summit as the “most significant development in ending his isolation within the Arab world.”

An Arab source within decision-making circles informed Fanack that Saudi Arabia played a pivotal role in building this consensus, successfully disregarding American objections to Syria’s reintegration. The anonymous official emphasised Riyadh’s measured reaction to comments made by certain Arab capitals on this issue.

About the issue’s complexity, the Arab official said: “There has been a general Arab sentiment favouring Damascus’ return. However, each country has its own considerations about this decision. For instance, Yemen accuses Syria of supporting the Houthis. Qatar has already adopted a predefined position on the matter. In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood does not like Bashar al-Assad.”

After undisclosed discussions with Saudi Arabia, Qatar has set aside its antagonism to the Syrian regime’s return to the Arab League. According to an Arab source, the Saudi-Qatari talks “led Doha to vote in favour of Syria’s reintegration within the Arab framework, distancing itself from bilateral conflicts.”

Majed al-Ansari, the spokesperson for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, explained The Qatari position, which is aligned with the American stance on the Syrian crisis. According to al-Ansari, Doha does not intend to restore diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime without a political solution to the crisis.

However, the Qatari official emphasised that Assad’s return to the Arab League should be seen as an opportunity to improve the situation in Syria.

For the first time since the October 1973 war, Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia have taken an opposite stance from Washington’s regarding a Middle Eastern issue.

In response to the new Arab decision, Biden’s administration has adjusted its manoeuvers. While voicing concern about the Arab embrace of Syria’s return to the Arab League, Washington refrained from condemning the Arab position. The US administration also stated that Syria “does not merit readmission into the Arab League.”

Arab officials have surprisingly downplayed American objections. In an interview with CNN, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi affirmed that Jordan and other Arab nations had reached out to the US administration to establish coordination on this matter. Nevertheless, he emphasised that the current implementation “aims to bring a realistic resolution to the crisis, steering away from the perilously stagnant status quo where no progress is made, and the situation continues to deteriorate.”

Likewise, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that America and others can “evaluate the matter as they wish,” stressing that “the Syrian crisis is an Arab issue dealt with within an Arab framework.”

Prior to the induction of the Biden administration, Arab countries were not able to confront American policies in this manner. This development seems to be a direct result of Saudi Arabia’s achievements in challenging the American monopoly in the region through strengthened relations with China and maintaining solid ties with Russia.

Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian writer and politician, perceives this as a significant shift away from the traditional “subordination approach” that has characterised Arab-international relations, particularly the Gulf states. According to Asfour, this new option opens the door to “mutually beneficial relations as an alternative to overbearing dominance.”

Promoted by the aforementioned Saudi success, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit expected that the upcoming Arab summit would leave a mark on the Arab situation in general.

In exchange for a normalisation deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia requested security guarantees and assistance from Washington in developing a civilian nuclear program. It also stipulated that Israel must abide by their Abraham Accords pledge before signing an agreement.

Despite the momentum surrounding normalisation with Israel, Saudi Arabia escalated its stance by conditioning a normalisation deal on establishing a Palestinian state. Israeli journalist David Horovitz said the Saudis presumably seek to “deepen their covert alliances.”

In other words, Saudi Arabia is capitalising on the US’ diminishing involvement in the region and the obsolete roles of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to solidify its leadership position.

Scheduled just six months after the Algeria summit, the upcoming Jeddah summit is expected to be more than a routine annual meeting. It can potentially reshape the dynamics and relations among Arab League members.

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