Finding a collective voice at the 2024 Arab Summit in Manama

Gaza is a top priority, but a confluence of factors means that now is the time to set up durable systems, including a regional security architecture. It all starts with having a collective Arab vision.

Al Majalla

Finding a collective voice at the 2024 Arab Summit in Manama

As delegates descend on Manama in Bahrain for the Arab Summit tomorrow (16 May), they will know that there is much at stake. While few such summits have left their mark, this one may mean the Arab world is able to help shape not just the region but the changing international order.

The last summit in Jeddah ironed out many of the Arab world’s domestic problems, leaving a largely clean slate from which to proceed this week. As the war in Gaza continues to have a huge impact, Arab leaders are coming together at a critical time. To rise to the opportunity and avoid becoming no more than a routine gathering, the Manama summit needs to help the Arab world articulate a vision for its future and its place in the world.

The importance of resolving the Palestinian problem was made clear last year and recognised as a key driver of instability in the region. None of the delegates could have predicted what would happen on 7 October or subsequently.

The war has presented Arab countries with a series of unprecedented security challenges at a range of levels and from different directions. This is in the context of an international system with unsettled relationships between the major world powers: the United States, China, Russia, and the European Union. The global south is also seeking to establish itself at a time of global realignment.

Adapting to change

Countries in the West are becoming increasingly polarised. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States. Inconsistent and impermanent policies often result. With its eyes on China, Washington can at times seem disinterested in the Middle East, while Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine, and the EU is focused on reviving itself. Amidst all this, China slowly grows and expands, becoming more powerful.

The Middle East and Africa have their own challenges, including relations with countries like Iran, Israel, Turkey and Ethiopia, while several Arab states have undergone deep economic, political, and societal changes in the past decade. Arab voices are often heard in forums such as the G20 and BRICS—an intergovernmental organisation with three Arab members. Yet, they should not be content with this limited expression.

Some argue that a common Arab vision for the future will be difficult to express because the interests of Arab states do not necessarily converge. Unity is seen as Utopian. Yet, while interests do diverge, there is enough common ground to begin to articulate a shared idea of the future. This will, however, require frank and open dialogue in Manama, insulated from foreign influence.

While the interests of Arab states don't always converge there is enough common ground to begin to articulate a shared idea of the future.

Learning from history

Useful lessons for Bahrain can be drawn from past Arab Summits. Other years are also remembered as important for intra-Arab relations, notably 1967 and 1973 (Arab-Israeli wars), 1990 (Iraq's invasion of Kuwait), and 2003 (the US invasion of Iraq). All these low points had ramifications for regional security relationships, with negative consequences, particularly for the principle of collective Arab security.

While the 1973 October War was a success for intra-Arab cooperation, it was not fully leveraged to further Arab security interests by establishing a comprehensive and durable peace in the region. This is an important lesson for Manama.

Arabs came together in a way they seldom did in October 1973. The divisions of the 1950s and 60s gave way to united action, with republics, monarchies, and progressive and reactionary governments (some pro-Soviet, others pro-US) all working together. It forced the world's attention onto one of the Arab world's most fundamental grievances: Israel's occupation of Arab lands, including in Egypt and Syria, and above all, the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people, with a sovereign state of their own.

Unfortunately, this unity proved to be fleeting, dissipating under the pressure of differing priorities, with disagreements over how to end the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and resolve the Palestinian problem. In the aftermath of the October 1973 war, Arab oil producers finally stood up for their own interests and defied the West's production calls, as they increasingly came to see their oil as a critical strategic commodity.

A movement called the New International Economic Order sought just that, and the Arab world's action over oil exports gave it renewed impetus, yet despite their importance to world energy markets, Arab countries in 1973 were only marginally integrated into the international economy. For their part, Turkey and Iran posed no direct threats to Arab interests. In parallel, the Arab world had no common approach to achieving peace with its main adversary: Israel.

Newly acquired influence

Leading up to the Manama Summit 2024, things have changed. Israel is much stronger both economically and militarily, Iran and Turkey now wield considerable influence in the region, and the Arab world wields more potential than it did in 1973.

In part, that is because the sharp and ideological Cold War divisions among Arab states no longer exist. There is also now a more balanced relationship with the world's major actors, given that many Arab states are no longer wholly dependent on the US. Also, relations with China are developing rapidly, and there is significant cooperation with Russia in areas like energy and defence, alongside intensive cooperation with the EU.

China's leader Xi Jinping (centre) walks with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (right), following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2022.

Read more: China-Arab Summit signals potential of new era

Moreover, the Arab world holds an increasingly important position in the international economy. It accounts for 46% of crude oil exports, 30% of natural gas exports, 30% of international container trade, and 16% of air cargo. Its sovereign-wealth funds manage assets of more than $3tn.

This has led to seats at the table. Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20, while Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are members of the BRICS club of nations, the name derived from its original members: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Read more: BRICS influence grows as it invites six countries to join

Regarding Israel, most Arab countries are now committed to peace with Tel Aviv as a strategic objective as stipulated in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This, they hope, could help all parties find a just solution to the Palestinian quest for statehood.

As Manama approaches, Arab countries need to fully appreciate their ability to influence, both at a regional and international level. At the same time, they need to draw the appropriate lessons from missed opportunities to secure long-term strategic interests in establishing peace and security in the Middle East.

On Gaza and Palestine

Part of the Arab vision will include details on the green energy transition, environmental sustainability, connectivity, cybersecurity, and the fight against international terrorism, but as a starting point, there needs to be a determined effort to settle conflicts.

Since 7 October, with such destruction and loss of life in Gaza, there has been a huge amount of attention on solving the Palestinian problem, yet this Israeli government shows no sign of wanting to, while the US backing for a Palestinian state seems theoretical only.

In any negotiations, four objectives should be pursued simultaneously. First, a permanent ceasefire in Gaza is needed to deliver humanitarian assistance to its population and initiate an international effort towards the reconstruction of the Strip.

Displaced Palestinian children gather to receive food at a government school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 19, 2024.

Second, ending Israel's military intervention in Gaza and severely curtailing its efforts in the West Bank. Third, international pressure persistently applied to Israel in every international forum to change its policies towards the Palestinians and their rights.

Fourth, a determined effort to recognise a Palestinian state and admit it into the United Nations. The UN General Assembly recently voted by an overwhelming majority of 143 in favour of a Palestinian state. The US vetoed it in the Security Council, but more countries can be convinced to take concrete actions to recognise a Palestinian state.

There is also the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over Israel's actions in Gaza, which ordered Tel Aviv to take measures to prevent genocide there. This should be leveraged.

Read more: Palestinians must capitalise on the growing global support for their cause

A previous ICJ ruling (between Bosnia and Serbia) established that "states have an obligation to influence effectively the action of persons likely to commit, or already committing genocide". This would apply to countries that provide financial, intelligence, and military assistance to Israel's barbarous campaign in Gaza.

Although Gaza will be high on the agenda at Manama, it is not the only issue that requires attention. Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and the Western Sahara are all flashpoints to differing degrees.

Arab delegates need to seize the initiative and work to find pathways towards resolutions in as many of these arenas as possible while remembering that they need not depend on outsiders to solve their problems. While foreign powers will need to be part of the solution, time has shown that unless Arabs take the initiative, outside centres are perfectly content to let these conflicts simmer until the next eruption. Gaza is a perfect case in point.

To really push for change, Arab states must use all available instruments of power, not least their financial clout. Yet, if they seek to bring about change on their own, Arab nations do not give durable peace their best chance of success. That is why a collective Arab vision for establishing a regional security architecture should be urgently articulated. There are various ideas on this.

Options for security

Israel and the US initiated the 'Negev Forum' as an anti-Iran vehicle to coordinate political and military cooperation amongst Arab states at odds with Tehran. With Iran and Israel having recently traded blows, advocates say such a formula is appropriate and timely. There are several reasons why an Israel-inspired anti-Iranian security architecture may not be the best framework for the Arab world.

For a start, the war in Gaza has confirmed the centrality of the Palestinian problem to Arab collective interests, as confirmed at the Jeddah Summit. Israel will stop at nothing to restore its deterrence—even at the expense of its relations with Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace treaties.

The war in Gaza has confirmed the centrality of the Palestinian problem to Arab collective interests

Additionally, both Israel and Iran pose challenges to the security of Arab countries, which cannot depend on outside powers to protect them. Compare US inaction in 2019, when Saudi oil facilities were attacked, to October 2023, and its unqualified support to Israel.

The best way to address Arab capitals' concerns is still the establishment of a comprehensive regional security system with political, military and economic dimensions. Importantly, this would include every regional country so as not to be set up against one. This would be a long process, but it could proceed in stages, with countries entering when they deem it to be in their interests. The first step would be the articulation of a common Arab position. It is here that Manama can contribute by initiating debate.

Laying the foundations

In any system, basic principles would set the foundation. One of the first would be an accepted set of norms, including around dispute resolutions, on all levels anchored in the principles of the UN Charter.

This could include: the right to self-determination; limits on the use of force; respect for sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all states; and non-interference in domestic affairs. In addition, there should be a collective regional arms control and disarmament regime and a zone free from weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the collective arrangement would agree to the need for a Palestinian state.

These processes will need to be gradual, flexible, pragmatic, and inclusive of all states in the region. The challenge will be to integrate each country's specific national interests into an overall Arab vision for regional security. Yet honest and frank discussion can often bring about results.

Arab countries should not be drawn into regional security arrangements until they can come up with a common vision for themselves. Israel should not be integrated until there is an agreement on a regional security system.

In the aftermath of the October 1973 War, Egypt put its own national concerns over the common Arab interest. The consequences of that decision are still being felt to this day. All countries have to prioritise their own national interests, but doing so in the Middle East without due regard to the interests of friends and allies will not serve the wider goal we all share: sustained peace and security for the region.

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