Egypt's President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi is received by Deputy Emir of Makkah, Prince Badr Bin Sultan, as he arrives to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, on May 18, 2023.

Cairo: Arab leaders will gather on Friday in Saudi Arabia for an annual summit marking Syria’s rehabilitation and a milestone in efforts to heal regional rifts.

Earlier this month, the Arab League agreed to reinstate Syria more than 11 years after its membership was suspended in protest against its crackdown on anti-government protests.

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Arab outreach to Damascus

The readmission reflects Arabs’ keenness to play a leading role in resolving the years-long Syrian crisis.

“This is an independent Arab decision, which sees that Arab interests dictate that the Syrian issue should not be left outside the Arab context and Arabs’ contribution to its solution,” head of the Arab League Ahmad C said earlier this month.

In 2018, the UAE re-established links with Syria and has since led efforts to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold.

The UAE also took the lead in dispatching relief supplies to Syria in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that hit the country last February.

A flurry of Arab diplomatic moves have since picked pace to end isolation of Damascus.

Following his country’s reinstatement, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad hailed UAE’s role in healing Arab rifts during a phone call he made to President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan earlier this month.

Last week, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz invited Al Assad to attend the Arab League summit in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Khalifa Shaheen Al Marar, Minister of State, headed the UAE delegation participating in preparatory meetings for the summit, WAM said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad attends Arab league's foreign ministers meeting. Image Credit: Reuters

A preparatory meeting of foreign ministers was held in Jeddah, during which they agreed on a draft agenda for the summit and draft resolutions that will be presented to the leaders at their meeting on Friday.

During the meetings, foreign ministers prepare documents for the summit, including an agreement on agenda items, draft resolutions, and various documents to be submitted.

Hopes run high

With Syria’s readmission approved, Al Assad has said the coming conference, the first he would attend since a 2010 meeting in Libya, is bound to “consolidate joint action to fulfil Arab people’s aspirations”.

Other Arab officials and regional media also sound upbeat, dubbing the meeting as a “summit of renewal” and a “ray of hope”.

The 22 members
Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

In fact, Syria’s reinstatement and pre-summit diplomacy have rekindled hopes that the Jeddah gathering will cement Arab ranks and iron out their differences amid geopolitical shifts in the region.

“With Syria’s return to its Arab League seat, the picture torn up by discord among the brethren in the past has been fixed, auguring well for the region to weather the storm of disunity,” Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia Al Sudani wrote in Asharq Al Awast newspaper this week.

The kingdom wants to send a message to the global community that Arabs will work together, said Abdullah Baaboud, the State of Qatar Chair for Islamic Area Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“That also helps it (Riyadh) not only in term of its status within the Middle East but also beyond that when it comes to dealing with international powers, whether it is the United States, Europe or China,” Baaboud told Reuters.

Washington has been sceptical about Assad’s return to the Arab fold. A bipartisan group of US lawmakers introduced a bill last week intended to bar US recognition of Assad as Syria’s president and enhance Washington’s ability to impose sanctions.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (centre right) meeting with his Mekdad (centre left) on the sidelines of preparatory meetings of the Arab League in Jeddah. Image Credit: Reuters

The Syrian crisis and other regional conflicts including Yemen and Libya, pose further challenges for the Arab League, which is often undermined by internal divisions.

The Jeddah summit will take place more than two months after Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic ties, ending a rupture of seven years.

Their China-brokered deal would hopefully reflect positively on defusing chronic feuds in the region, mainly in Syria and Yemen.

“The meeting comes amid positive developments in the Arab region and developments related to one of the most intractable crises for more than a decade, namely the Syrian crisis,” Abu Al Ghait said.

“This atmosphere motivates us to renew pledges and determination to put into action the principle of Arab solidarity,” he added in an address to a preparatory meeting ahead of the Jeddah summit.

Accumulated challenges

The top Arab diplomat, however, cautioned against excessive optimism, given what he termed as accumulation of serious and overlapping challenges.

The Jeddah conference is overshadowed by bloody fighting that has been raging on in Sudan for more than a month.

The Sudanese rivals last week signed in Jeddah a preliminary agreement on civilians’ protection and allowing humanitarian aid into the North East African country. But, the deal has failed to stop, let alone slow down, the violence there.

Top topics on the table

Sudan’s unrest will most likely top the summiteers’ agenda. War-torn Yemen is another key issue.

It is taking place in the same city where representatives of the two Sudanese camps have been locked in negotiations for a week and a half brokered by Saudi and US officials.

Last week in Jeddah, Sudan’s warring parties agreed to respect humanitarian principles, but they have made no breakthrough on a truce in talks that one US official called “very tough”.

“The Yemeni people pin big hopes on the Jeddah summit,” said Saleh Al Faqih, an undersecretary at the Yemeni Ministry of Youth and Sports.

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Foreign ministers meet in Jeddah. Image Credit: AFP

“It is a new window of hope towards peace, stability and development after years of conflict,” he told Saudi newspaper Okaz.

Yemen has been devastated by strife that erupted in late 2014 after the Iran-aligned Houthi militia toppled the internationally recognised government.

Fighting has largely abated in recent months in the country amid UN-led efforts to re-establish peace there.

The Saudi ambassador to Yemen told AFP in an interview that next steps towards a peace deal with the Houthis were unclear, though he said he believed all sides were serious about ending the war.

Regardless of what happens, there is little doubt about Saudi Arabia’s approach, both for the summit and beyond, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“There are clear signs that Saudi Arabia is shifting away from its previously adventurist foreign policy and seeking to reinvent itself as the region’s main diplomatic broker,” Soltvedt said.

He added, though, that “the jury is still very much out” on whether this mission will succeed.

“The summit comes at a time when the whole region is at the threshold of a new phase requiring unifying ranks in view of global conflicts and crises,” said Al Faqih.