Few Arab leaders can imitate Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's theatrics. His unique sense of humour was once again on display in his native city of Sirte in Libya for the latest League of Arab States (LAS) "reconciliation" Summit, which proved, once again, that ridicule was on the agenda.
In 2009, Gaddafi stormed out of the Doha Summit after he denounced King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a "British product, and [an] American ally." When Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar tried to rein him in, the Libyan responded: "I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level." In Sirte, Gaddafi took aim at the Qatari's weight, declared that Shaikh Hamad was "better than [him] at filling a void," before bursting into laughter. A few years ago, he told summiteers in Algeria that Palestinians and Israelis were "stupid" and that Israel should be invited to join the League. He even coined the term Isratine, Israel and Palestine, in the Oz-like fantasy land he envisaged.
Beyond the colonel's legendary, but highly entertaining outbursts, too many irreconcilable differences highlighted Arab leaders' overall powerlessness. When Arab officials demanded, asserted, affirmed, warned, or when they condemned, denounced and censured, one expected that some decisions, no matter how difficult, would at least be executed. In the absence of any changes, millions of frustrated citizens throughout the Arab world were dejected by a palpable sense of inefficacy. Even worse, many concluded that their leaders could not collectively tackle perennial challenges that, under the circumstances, required them to pretend.
In 2010, Iran and Turkey articulated core Arab concerns better than Arab officials, which was unsettling to say the least.
Iranian leaders acted as if they alone understood how to secure a ceasefire in Gaza. They interjected themselves in the internal affairs of Lebanon where no government could even be formed without Tehran's blessings. Naturally, Iran was involved in, channelled through and otherwise benefited from the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the July 2006 war in Lebanon and the Gaza war at the end of 2008. To say that these events enhanced Tehran's geopolitical positions was an understatement.
Turkey shows way forward
Likewise, Turkey was also absconding Arab leadership roles, asserting that the current Arab situation was unbearable. Sadly, it fell on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to voice his utter disgust with the Israeli destruction of Gaza in 2008, after the Turkish official walked out of a Davos Conference panel attended by Israeli President Shimon Perez. In Sirte, Erdogan described Israel's colonial policies in Jerusalem as "madness," referring to the holy city as "the apple of [his] eye." Though the Turkish premier fell back onto his Ottoman subconscious when he referred to the "fertile crescent" as the "jewel of the Ottoman crown," few Arabs who endured 600 years of Ottoman occupation were pleased. Still, because Erdogan voiced the pleas of Arab masses, especially on the core Palestinian Question, Turkey's growing role literally illustrated the waning Arab position.
Summiteers in Sirte pledged that they would not talk with Israel until such time when the latter freezes the building of colonial outposts. They also informed the world that a special summit chaired by Iraq, but probably not in Baghdad for security reasons, would be held next September to help solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, this was neither the first time such plans were made, nor the last when little was expected to result from what have become routine moribund pronouncements. They even entertained the idea of taking Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) before realising that few Arab countries accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdictions. For all of their good intentions, including a $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) fund to "rescue [occupied] Jerusalem" along with a committee to document Israeli confiscation of Palestinian lands and homes in the Occupied Territories, Arab leaders failed to mobilise.
Given the Sirte Summit collapse, it behooves Arab leaders to ponder the very need for such gatherings, which highlight nothing but divisions and the disdain that most leaders harbour towards each other. Rather than hold such events, it may be better to empower lower-level officials to hold frequent bilateral negotiations, where Iraq and Kuwait, Egypt and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, or Oman and Algeria, or any combination of Arab countries, can discuss means to create joint health panels to distribute vaccines, share textbooks in their respective schools, create drinking water and electricity grids, or build computer networks to meet the needs of millions of Arabs.
Mistrust among Arab leaders need not be re-emphasised here. In truth, however, few will be able to dedicate themselves to either solving the Palestinian Question or addressing difficulties in Sudan, Lebanon or any other number of critical challenges that face the nation. Unlike European representatives that placed their collective interests ahead of all other considerations, Arab principals shared few such concerns, which is why it might be better for the LAS to shut its doors. Let's come up with a better alternative, even if we will all miss Colonel Gaddafi's sharp humour.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.