In sign of regional disarray, many leaders forgo Arab summit

AP News
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Posted: Jul 25, 2016 1:04 PM

CAIRO (AP) — Arab officials gathered in a tent in the Mauritanian capital Monday, in the most poorly attended Arab League summit in years, a sign of the region's disarray.

Just a handful of leaders from the Arab League's 22 member states turned up, pointing to the pan-Arab organization's struggles under the strain of various regional crises — including the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.

Past initiatives — such as last year's plans for a joint Arab military force to fight Islamic militancy and confront Iran's aspirations — have failed to gather steam. This year, an Egyptian attempt to encourage the region to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has garnered little attention — even Egypt's president, Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, decided to forgo the summit.

Among the influential leaders who were also absent were: Saudi King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jordan's King Abdullah II, the leaders of Tunisia, Algeria and Tunisia and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

A spat broke out between Lebanon and Mauritania after one Lebanese minister described the host country as "miserable."

"They don't have the infrastructure and it's miserable," Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abu Faour told a local TV station.

"The summit will be held inside a tent," he added, apparently comparing it to previous summits that were held in five-star hotels or luxury conference centers.

In response to his remarks, Lebanese officials were attacked by journalists and on social media.

Prominent Palestinian journalist Abdul-Bari Atwan criticized Lebanese politicians in a column he wrote in his online Rai Al-Youm newspaper. "We don't understand the arrogance by leaders who claim they are Arabs, toward a country like Mauritania whose only guilt is that it is a poor country that does not have oil or gold," Atwan wrote.

Those who did attend included Qatari Emir Tamim Al-Thani, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Chaired by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the opening session suggested few new ideas or proposals, bar a contribution from the Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam who proposed the establishment of safe "refugee zones," which would be supervised by an Arab commission, inside Syria.

Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees, making up nearly a quarter of the country's population.

A draft of the summit final communique, obtained by The Associated Press, welcomed the Egyptian efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian talks and support a French peace initiative, hoping that it would lead to an international conference by year end. Few further details were given on the talks.

Last year, Arab League delegates touted a plan to create a joint Arab military force against Islamic militants and spreading Iranian power. Since then, these plans appeared to have stalled over divisions among Arab states and conflicts of interests.

As a pilot, the Saudis spearheaded a coalition of seven Arab countries against Yemen's Shiite rebels, who had seized the capital and forced the internationally-recognized president to flee the country. A year on, the Saudi-led coalition has failed to dislodge the rebels from the capital or restore the former president, and the Arab world's poorest nation has been pushed into lawlessness.

Taking note of the large number of absentees, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari addressed the attendees by saying "all eyes are on you."

"We need Arabs to line up," he added.

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Associated Press Writer Bassem Mroue from Beirut contributed to this report.