Amin Qammouria, The Cradle, September 6 2022 — Algeria’s strong anti-colonial stance and ties to Russia, Syria and Iran ensures that the upcoming Arab League Summit in Algiers will be anything but business-as-usual.
Algeria will be taking the political centre stage in the Arab world when it hosts the 31st Arab League Summit on 2 November, the first after a three-year pandemic hiatus.
As a former revolutionary state – once at the forefront of resistance against the western settler-colonialism of the twentieth century, and still today a champion of Arab resistance – it is no surprise that majority-Sunni Algeria continues to take positions that are at odds with those of western-backed Sunni Arab governments of West Asia and North Africa.
Algeria’s principles that irk the region’s pro-west monarchies include its vehement opposition to Zionism, support of the Palestinian cause, insistence on maintaining relations with Iran, and engagement with Syria, with Algiers adamantly demanding that the Syrian state be readmitted to the Arab League.
Diplomacy or distraction?
The host country is pinning great hopes on the success of this summit for several reasons, the most important of which is its desire for a major event that restores vitality to Algerian diplomacy.
The state’s regional clout had receded during the years of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s prolonged illness and death, which inhibited his ability to exercise his duties. During this period, widespread street protests thwarted Bouteflika’s plans to extend his presidential term, ultimately bringing down his administration.
By hosting the summit, Algiers seeks an opportunity to shine regionally and highlight its diplomatic reach, distracting Algerians from the daily grind they’ve endured for years. It is a formula Iraq’s prime minister has used to some degree of success.
In this context, Algeria’s leaders have ensured the summit coincides with the 68th anniversary of the launch of their revolution against colonial France, and have planned an elaborate series of political, cultural, youth and artistic activities to burnish Algeria’s image as a regional powerhouse.
These are intended to project the North African state as the new ‘Mecca of Arab diplomacy,’ just as it remains a hub for liberation movements across the Global South and the ‘Mecca for revolutionaries’ since the 1960s.
It’s not such a wild idea. Algeria has come into play in recent years, not just for championing popular Arab worldviews, but for its geopolitical choices that are now in ascent. Like Syria, Algeria’s military is heavily invested with Russian equipment, training, and know-how. The energy-producing state is also receiving windfall profits from skyrocketing fuel and gas prices globally. And the increasing Russian, Iranian and Chinese (RIC) influence in West Asia – concurrent with the receding US presence – places Arab Algiers in a strong starting position.
Energy and food security
Recent global and regional developments, however, may make this Arab League meeting one of its most complex summits. The reverberations of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine just as the world began to emerge from the repercussions of the pandemic, have added a slate of pressing issues to Algiers’ table in November.
The impact of these two events have reshuffled geopolitical cards everywhere, and caused a global energy crisis that has placed several nations on the brink of severe economic and food crises.
In the unlikely scenario that the war in Ukraine ends before this year’s Arab Summit, its impact will remain on the top of the agenda. On the economic level, oil and gas prices will be a priority for both energy-producing and energy-consuming Arab countries, with expectations that the price of a barrel of oil will exceed $160 if the situation continues as is.
Another important agenda item is food security – especially vital crops such wheat and maize. It is expected that the summit will study the possibility of inter-cooperation to develop agriculture within regional states, with the hope that the studies will not remain as ink on paper as is the usual outcome of these gatherings.
Algeria calls for Syria’s return
Syria’s return to the Arab League after its highly politicized and unprecedented suspension in 2011 is another important challenge facing the summit. Algeria, which has maintained good relations with Damascus, has been adamant that Syria should be re-admitted to the League.
Algiers’ position is supported by several Arab countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, the UAE and Bahrain. But Syria’s return depends on buy-in from the remaining members too – with Qatar playing spoiler to Damascus’ regional rehabilitation. This too may change in time, as even Doha’s close Turkish allies are working toward normalizing relations with the Syrian government.
Syria’s membership was suspended at a highly-irregular emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo in November 2011. The move came after the Syrian government failed to implement the terms of the “Arab initiative” that gave President Bashar Al-Assad an unrealistic two weeks to conduct a political dialogue with the opposition, form a “national unity government” within two months, and conduct early presidential and parliamentary elections.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said Syria’s participation in the upcoming Arab summit “is still subject to an Arab consensus,” which has not yet been achieved.
It does not seem that the countries that demanded the suspension of Syria’s membership will agree to its return as long as the conditions of suspension still exist. In turn, Damascus is unenthusiastic about returning to the League before certain Arab countries apologize for their material support of the Syrian armed opposition.
In fact, on 4 September, in a phone call with his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra, Syrian Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad appeared to unilaterally bow out from the November summit, saying he “prefers not to raise” Syrian’s readmission to the League at this time.
Mikdad said his decision was made to keep the Arab focus on more urgent issues facing the region: “[To] contribute to uniting the Arab world and ranks in facing the challenges posed by the current situation at the regional and international levels.”
Israel’s presence at Algeria’s border
The most pressing diplomatic issue for Algiers though has been its fallout with neighboring Rabat, particularly following the latter’s decision to resume relations and sign defense agreements with Tel Aviv, which has heightened security concerns in Algeria.
It remains to be seen whether Morocco will participate in the summit after Algiers severed diplomatic relations with Rabat in August 2021.
At the heart of the neighbors’ spat is a territorial dispute in the Western Sahara. Both states have long been at odds over this sparsely-populated desert terrain where the Algiers-backed Polisario Front is seeking independence from Rabat’s rule. Morocco, in turn, is believed to have secured Washington’s recognition of its ‘sovereign claim’ to the Western Sahara in exchange for normalizing relations with Tel Aviv.
Morocco fears that, as the summit’s host, Algeria will be able to advance the momentum on this contentious issue and win over other Arab states to its side.
With the escalation in tension between the two countries, Algerian political writer Ahmed Boudaoud expects Morocco to be absent from this summit or reduce its level of representation: “especially with the assurances of Algerian officials that their country’s position will not change as long as the reasons that led to the diplomatic rupture between the two countries persist.”
In order to legitimize the diplomatic and economic estrangement with Rabat, Algeria may insist at the summit on issuing a statement condemning the wave of Arab normalization with Israel.
But such a statement will not be unanimously approved as long as there are influential countries, in addition to Morocco, with which Israel has peace treaties, such as Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Sudan and Bahrain.
Unwavering Palestinian solidarity
As is customary in all Arab summits, the Palestinian issue is given priority on the agenda – though typically without any practical measures that actually support Palestinians and their oft-neglected cause.
But Algerian President Abdel Majid Tebboune made a special gesture toward Palestinians in an attempt to reconcile key factions at the summit, particularly Fatah and Hamas.
On 6 July, Tebboune brought together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of the Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, during their attendance at the 60th anniversary celebrations of Algeria’s independence.
Despite the meeting being praised as “historic” after years of estrangement, the gloomy looks on the faces of those present, and the statements issued thereafter, indicated that reconciliation is far from being achieved.
The limits of Algerian diplomacy
The situation in neighboring Libya, around which both regional and European schisms are intensifying, will be another important issue expected to be discussed in Algiers.
Algeria seeks to consolidate Arab consensus around the adoption of a “Libyan-Libyan solution” which rejects any external interference that might hinder the unification of the Libyan parties and disrupt the course of upcoming presidential elections.
Some Arab countries such as Morocco, however, have accused Algeria of interference in Libya with the intention to dominate its neighbor’s political discourse – taking particular aim at Algiers’ own diplomatic shortcomings in Libya and its failed mediation attempt in the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Renaissance Dam.
Cracks in Arab “unity” will also appear in discussions on the growing Iranian and Turkish influence in a number of Arab countries.
Given the significant Arab differences over basic regional and global issues, and the preoccupation of each of states with their internal problems and priorities, the Algeria summit will likely be similar to the summits that preceded it: Luxurious receptions, resonant speeches, projects, plans, and decisions that expire the moment participants return to their respective countries.
Although swimming against a powerful tide of Arab states still servile to western diktats, an Algeria noted for its revolutionary struggle toward genuine independence will not entirely be faulted for sticking to its principles. Instead, Algiers will be able to collect its ‘summit success’ from the popular sentiment of the Arab street, which still shares its worldview stances.