For some, last week’s Arab League summit was a dream come true. For others, it was a traffic, business and security nightmare. Praise and criticism has been flying ever since - as have rumours about cell phone censorship and why the waiters wore Italian suits.
Last week the “Iraqi dream” came true. At least, that is, if one is to believe the organizers of the Arab League summit, held in Baghdad last week. They said that the summit was incredibly successful simply because it brought together representatives of all the Arab states in the League in Baghdad for the first time in over two decades – with the exception of Syria, of course, whose membership has been suspended due to ongoing violence there.
Additionally the summit was also attended by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and former Turkish diplomat, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, now the Secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a body that aims to encourage cooperation between nations that are mostly Muslim.
“The summit was able to bring Iraq out of isolation and put the country back on the map,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said – this was after years of isolation brought about, firstly, by the policies of former dictator Saddam Hussein and then through the US occupation of Iraq.
“The Iraqi government succeeded in organizing this regional summit and it was able to handle all of the security, organizational and administrative aspects. It was even capable of handling the political aspects efficiently. By all standards, the summit was a huge success,” Zebari enthused. “We’ve passed a very difficult test with flying colours.”
The first meeting of the summit took place on the afternoon of March 27 and was attended by up to 10 Arab leaders. Conspicuous in their absence though, were the leaders of the Gulf Arab nations who sent representatives only, and some of those fairly low ranking. Before that first meeting, there were two other meetings – attended by various ministers of finance and economy from around the region and then a second one, attended by ministers of the interior.
As one might expect, diplomats from other nations – including the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey - also offered positive reviews of the Baghdad event. One of the most significant attendees was the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, and afterwards Kuwaiti journalist, Sami al-Nisf, a former Minister of Communications and Information for Kuwait, who attended the conference as an observer, also agreed that the summit had been a success.
“The summit resulted in an Arab project that could be approved of by all the Arab leaders,” al-Nisf commented, referring to the Baghdad Declaration, which urges a peaceful end to the bloodshed in Syria through “serious national dialogue” among other things.
Al-Nisf also noted that the subjects covered at the summit were wider ranging than usual and included human rights, women’s rights, demographic changes in the Middle East and the dignity of the Arab people. Topics like this were not on previous summit agendas.
Also notable was the role that Iraq’s Kurds took during the summit. Three Iraqi-Kurds chaired Arab League meetings. Minister of Trade Khairallah Babiker chaired the meeting of economic and finance ministers from around the region, foreign minister Zebari chaired the foreign ministers’ meeting and the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, a leading Kurdish politician, headed the all important meetings of Arab leaders.
The fact that the Arab League summit took place in Baghdad at all could be considered something of a coup. It was supposed to take place there around the same time last year but due to political conditions in a number of Arab nations – at the time, the Arab spring protests and their results were in full effect –it was postponed. Rumour has it that behind the scenes at the Arab League, requests were also made to move the summit out of Baghdad. It was also suggested that the full blown Arab League summit be replaced by a less formal meeting, which national leaders wouldn’t attend but could send more low ranking representatives to instead.
Some of these obstacles were obviously overcome. The summit did happen in Baghdad - although it seems as though some of the Gulf Arab states did stick with the idea of only sending low-level representation.
The fact that the summit was held at all is due in no small part to pressure applied by the US. A high ranking diplomatic source in Iraq says that Baghdad is in no doubt that there had been real pressure exerted to ensure that Arab nations all attended the summit in Baghdad, no matter how low their level of representation.
Additionally in order for the summit to happen, there was a preliminary compromise made. As the chair of the session, Iraq had to promise not to bring up the political issues currently afflicting Bahrain – where pro-democracy protestors are being forcibly suppressed – and they also had to promise not to include anything about this issue in the summit’s closing statements. In return, the Gulf Arab nations would not bring up Iraq’s internal political strife, which saw the Iraqi parliament come to a standstill earlier this year.
And of course, there were also criticisms. One of the biggest stories in local and international media had to do with the security clampdown on Baghdad that made locals’ lives miserable for almost two weeks. Already congested streets became impossible to traverse, food prices rose, businesses shut down, deliveries couldn’t get through and taxi drivers hiked fees dramatically; the city was virtually locked down.
One of the most unpopular, and seemingly most arbitrary, security measures taken involved jamming mobile telephone services for two days. For Baghdadis, accustomed to doing business over the phone, this was especially upsetting. Roads were blocked, there were curfews and an official holiday was declared, which meant a lot of people ended up trapped in their own homes- then they were without even mobile phone access to the outside world.
And the security measures were not altogether effective. There were several attacks on security headquarters and government buildings and a number of rockets were launched just as the closing session of the summit started.
The Iraqi government spent a lot of money on preparations for hosting the various delegations and this has also been criticised by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political opponents.
“Huge amounts of money were spent on unnecessary luxuries,” the leader of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, Ayed Allawi said. “We’ve heard that US$1.25 billion was spent on preparations and we’ve also heard allegations of corruption during preparations.”
The Iraqi government has said that it spent US$500 million restoring the various buildings to be used as well as roads. A Turkish company was contracted to provide hospitality services and one of the most scurrilous rumours has it that this company fitted its employees out with Italian-made suits for the job.
One of the other criticisms made of the summit had to do with its length: it may well be considered the shortest summit ever. Some have estimated it lasted around three hours. Most of the Arab leaders who attended didn’t spend the night in Baghdad – they were there for a few hours, then flew back to their own countries. The Emir of Kuwait, whose visit was so celebrated by the Iraqis because he was the highest ranking representative from a Gulf country to attend, didn’t attend the summit’s concluding session.
Indeed for many outside observers, the summit was best seen as a kind of “meet and greet”, an introductory party where leaders of the old Arab world got to meet leaders of the new Arab world, post-Arab Spring.
And it is true that the impact of the Arab Spring could be felt at the summit. The Arab people seemed to be more present at this summit, even if it was metaphorically rather than literally. This is unusual in a region where rulers inherit their jobs and a tribal mentality prevails. Also, unlike at past summits, there was no exchange of accusations, overblown rhetoric or maddening statements such as those that former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, used to like to make.
The summit was not without its in-jokes either. Or rather, its ironies. As some wits were quick to note, two of the most important meetings were held in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces – which also happens to be the palace where the Iraqi dictator had previously planned his invasion of neighbouring Kuwait: the invasion that would eventually isolate Iraq from its Arab neighbours and the world.