Iraq insists: Arab Summit must take place in Baghdad

The Arab Summit due to be held in Baghdad has been postponed. Now some even want it cancelled. But the Iraqis, and even the US, are insisting it go ahead. Why?

Slowly but surely, Arab leaders are working out how to use the methods that have proven so successful for their revolution-minded citizens. And some of them are fomenting a small rebellion of their own around the upcoming Arab League summit to be held in Baghdad.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, for example, recently used the instant, online messaging service Twitter to try to lobby other Persian Gulf nations to cancel the summit, planned for May. The summit, a regular meeting for members of the Arab League, a body of Arab nations whose purpose is to encourage co-operation in the region, was originally scheduled to be held in Iraq in March. But after meetings held in Cairo between representatives of the Arab League, it was agreed that the 34th summit of the League would be postponed until May due to the unrest that has gripped countries in the Middle East. This week, further meetings indicate that the meeting will be delayed until even later in the year.

And now the Bahraini minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa is lobbying for outright cancellation, via Twitter no less. Iraqi diplomats say they never received any official notification of the Bahraini minister’s request. But it does seem likely that in the near future, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – these are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait – may also ask, if not for outright cancellation of this year’s summit, then at least for a change of venue. The Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, seems the most likely option for them to suggest.

Earlier this week Baghdad remained optimistic about hosting the summit, which was still scheduled for May10 and 11 at that stage. In a telephone interview with NIQASH, Iraq’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Qais al-Azzawi, who is based in Cairo, said that "up until now, half of the 22 Arab attending countries have confirmed their participation. We are confident that more countries will confirm their participation, because they know that the quorum requires two thirds of the [Arab League’s] member states’ presence.”

Al-Azzawi said that the length of any postponement was not important, as long as the Arab League summit eventually took place in Baghdad. “The summit will be held in Baghdad or there will be no summit at all,” he warned.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has also insisted that Iraq host the summit, pointing out that the country has already spent US$450 million (524 billion Iraqi dinar) on preparations, including the refurbishment of the main summit venue, one of former ruler Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces in the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to foreign nationals and embassies.

Zebari believes that the summit should go ahead as scheduled because as he said in Cairo, it is of paramount importance for the region’s leaders to “discuss the current political situation in the Arab region and the changes taking place, especially in countries whose people are impatiently seeking democracy and freedom”.

A spokesman for US Embassy in Baghdad David Ranz told Iraqi satellite television channel Alsumaria that the embassy also supported holding the summit there. “Iraq now has a positive role in the region,” the channel reported Ranz saying. “We are confident that Iraq will be a source of stability once all institutions in the country are developed.”

As news agency Reuters reported last week, these kinds of statements indicate just how much Iraq is “slowly flexing its muscle in regional diplomacy”. And according to observers inside the country, Iraq, a fledgling democracy, wants nothing less than the restoration of its role as a key player in the region. Holding the chair at the Arab Summit for a full year is part of that plan.

A close adviser to the Iraqi prime minister explained that, "over the past years Iraq has been absent from what was going on around it, in the region. Iraq was ignored - even when it came to conferences held by neighbouring nations’ foreign ministers that focussed on discussing the situation in Iraq. May 10 would be the beginning of this wounded country regaining its honour,” he told NIQASH.

However, he did concede that the attendance levels might not be as high as one might hope due to the “volatile” Arab situation. According to Bahrain’s Al Khalifa on Twitter, conditions in a number of member states won’t allow such a meeting to be held.

Indeed, developments in the region mean that, even if Arab leaders do end up meeting in Baghdad, it may merely be for the sake of renewing old acquaintances.

At the time of writing, Libya, the country that chaired the last summit, was still divided, with NATO still enforcing a no fly zone. Most Arab nations do not recognize the Libyan opposition’s National Transitional Council, currently in conflict with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and in response, Arab foreign affairs ministers have decided to freeze Libyan participation in the summit.

In Yemen, the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh is about to pack his bags under pressure from hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. Even in previously more stable regimes, such as Algeria and Syria, there have been signs of unrest, with the president of the latter unable to withstand growing protests completely, promising reforms and making concessions.

Jordan and Morocco are busily preparing constitutional changes with which to appease protestors and save the royal dynasties in their countries. And with only a caretaker government to protest against, Lebanon, while also affected by unrest, has not seen situations as dramatic as those in some other Arab nations.

In Sudan, where there have been some signs of protest during the previous months, the country remains divided and conflicted; There are two arrest warrants, issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, out for the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, charging him with, among other things, genocide. And Palestine – with issues so central to Arab nations’ concerns – is also contentious as it is led by two governments, one in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip.

Even in Djibouti, a small but strategically important country on the Red Sea that most Arabs know very little about it, there have been protests.

At present the only two democratic exceptions in the Arab world are Egypt and Tunisia, both of which are currently led by transitional governments. Their presence in a hall filled with representatives of dictatorial regimes under threat, would not only embarrass them but all of the other attending nations as well.

Under these troubling conditions, national leaders would need to be feeling extremely courageous to take a plane and leave the country.

But there are other reasons why an Arab Summit in the near future is nigh on impossible. One of the major ones involves the Baghdad venue.

Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, has a thousand and one reasons to think long and hard before setting down at Baghdad International Airport. Saudi Arabia is the most influential country among the Persian Gulf countries that make up the GCC and it has never been close to Baghdad, or to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Saudi Arabian royals are Sunni Muslims as was former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq has a large population of Shiite Muslims, and in both the Shia sect has complained of oppression and prejudice against them. After US-led forces invaded Iraq and deposed Hussein, Iraqi Shiites celebrated because they felt they would finally have a political voice: And, despite his somewhat shaky electoral standing, Iraq’s al-Maliki is a Shiite.

During the past six years, Riyadh has denied al-Maliki entry to Saudi Arabia several times. Saudi Arabia has also declined to open an embassy in Iraq. During the 2010 parliamentary election campaigns, Saudi Arabia spent millions of dollars supporting al-Maliki’s primary rival for the prime ministerial position, Iyad Allawi, a Sunni, and it still believes that al-Maliki, a Shiite, is a close ally of Iran.

Among many Sunni Muslims in the Middle East there is often a suspicion that their Shia brethren owe their allegiance to the theocratic and staunchly Shiite regime that rules Iran, rather than their own nation or their Sunni rulers. According to one of al-Maliki’s closest advisers, the Saudis have said that al-Maliki “speaks Arabic in a Persian accent,” - meaning that they believe he is influence by Iran.

Events of the past fortnight have only soured relations further. Following the demonstrations in Pearl Square in the Bahraini capital Manama, Saudi Arabia responded to what they said was a request for aid from Bahrain’s leadership by dispatching the GCC’s Peninsula Shield military forces to the country.

Meanwhile al-Maliki told the BBC’s Arabic service that the situation in Bahrain threatened to spark a region-wide conflict between Sunni and Shiite sects. He has described both the Saudi Arabian and the Bahraini governments as "cowardly tyrannies”. And in a statement on March 26, al-Maliki added that he felt "the issue has become a conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites. Sending troops from Arab Sunni countries to support the Bahraini Sunni government has made Shiites feel as though they are fighting Sunni troops.”

In Sadr City, a district of Baghdad, and in other Iraqi provinces in the southern, Shiite-dominated parts of the country, demonstrations were organized to denounce the Saudi "occupation" of Bahrain. Some demonstrators also called for the closure of the Bahraini embassy, others for a boycott of goods made in Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi parliament briefly suspended its sessions and the country’s ranking Shiite cleric, the highly influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ordered a day of Hawza (the study of Islam) to demonstrate solidarity with the Bahraini people and to protest against the violent repression of demonstrators in Manama.

All of these kinds of events have seen Iraq resuming its former role as the traditional buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They also appear to have seen Saudi Arabia and Bahrain leading the charge in trying to deprive Baghdad of the Arab League summit.

Iraqi diplomat al-Azzawi told NIQASH that “questioning the country’s ability to organize such an event is an insult to the Iraqis’ patriotic feelings". Al-Azzawi also noted that, “Europeans, Turks and Iranians are all coming to Iraq while Arabs are surprisingly reluctant to do so, under the pretext that they are concerned about security problems in the country.”

Security-related concerns may be well founded though. On April 17, a suicide bomb attack on a convoy of vehicles waiting at one of the entrance points to the Green Zone left at least 11 dead and 19 wounded. Entrance 12, where the attack occurred, is located on the airport road, where the US embassy is also located, and it is the same thoroughfare that would be used by delegates arriving at the Arab Summit.

Additionally, the three government ministries that would usually be tasked with providing visiting diplomats with security do not have ministers-in-charge; they are run by the prime minister’s department. And nobody expects a director of intelligence services or the ministers of defence, national security or the interior to be appointed in the near future.

All of which begs the question: Why is Iraq actually lobbying so hard for the Arab summit?

In the past Arab league summits have mostly concluded with a lot of speechifying about Arab unity and often a long list of to-do tasks, but never many, if any, concrete results. The fact that, even if the summit in Baghdad does go ahead, most of the beleaguered Middle Eastern leaders will probably only send a representative, makes any kind of tangible result even less likely.

An informal survey of diplomatic insiders by NIQASH indicates that mostly an Arab Summit in Baghdad is important because it will be seen as a symbolic coup for al-Maliki’s government, a regime that has also been under pressure from popular demonstrations against government corruption and shortages, over the past few months.

Internally an internationally important meeting like the Arab Summit may help revive the Iraqi people’s vision of a safe, stable and important country.