The Arab Summit: Diverse Agendas, United Destiny


The Arab summit, though not inherently significant, holds importance due to the prevailing perception of the Arab League as an outdated organization requiring reform or an alternative. However, this summit stands out for two notable reasons: the reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League and the implications surrounding it, as well as the messages conveyed by Saudi Arabia to both the world at large and the Arab nations specifically.

The return of Syria to the Arab League owes credit to the active role played by Saudi Arabia, which effectively imposed its will upon the other Arab countries that opposed or harbored reservations about Syria’s reinstatement.

This success underscores the reluctance of Arab nations to challenge Saudi directions, given the Kingdom’s size and the entwined interests shared with those countries. It reflects Saudi Arabia’s aspiration to attain diplomatic recognition for yet another political achievement, solidifying its position as the Arab decision-making hub. For Saudi Arabia to assume the role of Arab capital, Syria inevitably becomes the compass guiding this resolution and determining its course. The past years have served as a valuable lesson for all, demonstrating that Syria cannot be subjugated. Sufficient time has evidenced the validity of Syria’s stance and the sincerity of its orientations.

Moreover, the Arab League loses its weight and significance without Syria’s participation. After all, Syria was one of the league’s founding members in 1945, unlike the countries that sought Syria’s expulsion and remain hesitant about its return, as they did not exist during the league’s establishment. The reinstatement of Syria into the league is not an end in itself but rather a means to restore Arab relations with Syria. Each country is free to make its own decision in this regard. Despite its fragility, the Arab League remains the most prestigious international organization, serving as the umbrella that unites all Arab nations. It reminds the world of our collective identity as one Arab people, carrying substantial weight and importance on the international stage. This importance prompted leaders of major countries such as Russia and China to address the gathering of Arab presidents in Jeddah, recognizing the significance of these nations and seeking unity among the Arab side, given the prevailing regional inclination towards an alternative hostile to American hegemony. Furthermore, Ukrainian President Zelensky, driven by a sense of despair and failure with diminishing European support, sought to speak at the summit.

Zelensky’s presence at the summit on a French plane was made possible by French support and the European desire to influence Arab political decisions, which holds greater significance now than ever before. The invitation extended to the Ukrainian president to address Arab leaders was notable, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia being the sole issuer, disregarding the opinions of other Arab nations.

This invitation did not come as a pleasant surprise to some countries, particularly Syria, which has stood by Russia in defending its national security and opposing NATO expansion into Ukraine since the war’s outset. The invitation adversely affects the Arab stance on the Ukrainian conflict, which is divided between pro-Russian or neutral positions.

The invitation reflects Saudi Arabia’s efforts to alleviate American discontent regarding its role in inviting Syria to the summit, its rapprochement with Iran, and its orientation toward China and Russia in foreign policy. The Kingdom also seeks to mediate in the Ukrainian crisis, thus bolstering its international political power.

However, this invitation is likely to be unwelcome to the Russian side, especially since Moscow previously accepted the Kingdom’s mediation in prisoner exchange agreements with Ukraine. It also complied with Saudi demands for the release of foreign mercenaries from the Azov Nazi Regiment, despite contradicting the sentiments of the Russian people.

Zelensky’s invitation raises concerns that Saudi Arabia may not have genuinely altered its political orientation, running counter to its efforts to draw closer to the United States and fulfill its desires.

Moreover, this invitation accentuates the stark differences in orientations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, leading to the Syrian delegation’s refusal to listen to Zelensky’s speech. It also refutes the notion of “positive neutrality” among Arab countries regarding the Ukrainian conflict, as described by the Saudi Foreign Minister.

Despite the appearance of consensus and harmony among Arab countries at the summit, the broader scene does not conceal the significant differences between them. Many countries are now unable to express their positions or discontent.

Underestimating the importance of the Arab League is as detrimental as overestimating its role and effectiveness. The organization has failed to reconcile the viewpoints of Arab countries and has consistently aligned with the stronger party. Moreover, routine and bureaucracy have overwhelmed the league’s operations.

Reforming the league is possible in the upcoming phase, provided there is the will to do so, particularly if Saudi Arabia assumes this task as the chair of the Arab summit. Such reform could alter certain conventions typically associated with the league’s functioning, such as the nationality of the secretary-general. It would not be surprising if the next secretary-general is a Gulf national, possibly from Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom seeks to enhance its soft power by leveraging its robust economy, growing influence, and new policy directions that prioritize resolving regional issues. While this vision may seem promising on the surface, its viability lies in its practical application. It is worth noting that a country that once pursued a policy of “zero problems” (Turkey) later found itself with “zero friends.”

The summit has positioned the Kingdom as the biggest winner, achieving what other countries, such as Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq, could not due to their limited size and influence. This success resulted from Saudi Arabia’s persistence at the time.

The idea of Saudi leadership within the Arab official system began to materialize with the Arab-Chinese summit held in the Kingdom last year, symbolizing the shift of the Arab decision-making center from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Favorable regional and international conditions, along with internal aspirations to increase the Saudi role, particularly following the war in Ukraine and the U.S. withdrawal from the region, have contributed to this trend.

Additionally, through its agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia has managed to reduce tensions in the region, reversing the policy of polarization and axes. The “Arab Spring” caused economic devastation in countries where it unfolded, diminishing their role and political effectiveness.

On the other hand, Gulf policies have undergone a change, with a shift toward a merchant-like approach focused on self-interest and profit rather than providing assistance to other Arab countries. Investments and economic assets have become key determinants in shaping political decisions in some countries.

Although the Jeddah summit aimed to foster Arab unity, differences were evident. Algeria was not invited to the preparatory meetings, despite previously chairing the Arab summit. The Algerian President also did not personally attend the summit, possibly due to the absence of the Saudi Crown Prince at the Algiers summit.

The summit further highlighted diverging views within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Although the Emir of Qatar attended, he did not deliver his country’s speech and left before President Bashar al-Assad’s address. The same was true for the United Arab Emirates, which experiences rivalry and conflicting interests with Saudi Arabia, resulting in Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s absence from the summit.

The Arab summit in Jeddah signifies the end of the “Arab Spring” and the transition of Arab policies toward a new phase characterized by political realism, including respect for each state’s sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.

President Assad’s presence at the summit was the most significant event, accompanied by a warm welcome from the Kingdom. This gives the impression that Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to dissociate himself from previous Saudi policies toward Syria, particularly.

The key question remains the extent of Saudi Arabia’s role in the reconstruction of Syria, as reconstruction represents the pathway for refugee returns. Syrian-Saudi relations are experiencing unexpectedly positive developments, making it challenging to interpret the rapidly evolving landscape.

The American position remains the decisive factor in Arab countries’ openness towards Damascus, with some ambiguity and differences between the administration and Congress. Congress has recently introduced a bill imposing severe sanctions on any country providing assistance to Syria.

Arab countries’ openness towards Syria does not imply their readiness to defy international resolutions or withstand U.S. sanctions. Any Arab or international efforts to assist Syria will only succeed if they can convince the United States.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)


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