Algeria prepares for Arab League summit over controversial issues

By JACK JEFFERY
Associated press

CAIRO (AP) — Algeria hosts the 31st summit of the largest annual Arab conference on Tuesday and Wednesday as the region struggles to find common ground on a range of divisive issues.

The 22-member Arab League held its last summit in 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In the years that followed, new challenges radically reshaped the region’s agenda, with the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and four other Arab League countries, as well as the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

All of these issues are expected to take center stage when Algeria hosts the summit for the first time.

The event offers Africa’s largest country, by territory, the opportunity to show its leadership in the Arab world. Algeria is a major oil and gas producer and is seen by European nations as a key supplier in the context of the global energy crisis.

Foremost among the summit’s talking points are likely to be the food and energy crises aggravated by the conflict in Eastern Europe. The crisis has had devastating consequences for Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, among other Arab countries, which struggle to import enough wheat and fuel to satisfy their populations.

In addition, the past month has seen the worst drought in decades ravage swaths of Somalia, one of the Arab League’s newest members, bringing parts of the country to the brink of famine.

Russia’s tightening of its blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Sunday threatens to further deepen the crisis, with many Arab countries almost solely dependent on wheat exports from Eastern Europe.

Much to the chagrin of Ukraine and its Western supporters, the war has become a point of unity among Arab League members, with nearly all adopting a position of neutrality. Experts say this should continue.

“Political and economic involvement in this conflict would be costly for Arab countries,” said Hasni Abidi, a political scientist who teaches at the Swiss Institute for Global Studies. “That’s why a new non-alignment (agreement) could be a realistic approach.”

Other issues are likely to be more contentious. The series of normalization agreements that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco have signed with Israel over the past three years have divided the region into two camps. Sudan has also agreed to establish ties with Israel.

Algeria, among other league members, remained fiercely opposed to the deals. Two weeks ago he held talks aimed at ending the Palestinian political divide and reconciling the Fatah party, whose Palestinian Authority rules parts of the occupied West Bank, and the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The Algerian government is likely to use the summit to try to reaffirm its support for the Palestinians.

“The Arab League has lost its place of reference in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Abidi said.

Arab leaders will also closely follow the results of the Israeli parliamentary elections, which coincide with the summit. The election comes at a time of heightened tensions in the West Bank, where the Israeli army is carrying out nightly arrest raids in search of Palestinian activists. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in recent months, including gunmen, stone-throwing teenagers and people not involved in the violence.

The meeting also comes as tensions rise between Algeria and Morocco, with Algiers severing diplomatic ties with its North African neighbor last year. The ongoing feud between the two countries stems from a dispute over Western Sahara, a territory annexed by Morocco in 1975. The Sahrawis of the Polisario Front are backed by Algeria and have been demanding independence for the region for decades.

Morocco’s growing ties with Israel, which include a military and security deal, have further soured relations over the past two years.

“Morocco cannot keep up with Algeria in terms of military spending, so a military alliance with Israel is a way to balance power with Algeria,” said Michael Ayari, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Under pressure from other Arab states, Algeria invited Morocco to the summit. However, several Algerian officials told The Associated Press that Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita left a preliminary meeting with his Algerian counterpart on Monday. The latter refused to comment on the presumed role of Iran in the supply of drones to the Polisario Front. Algerian officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Morocco’s foreign ministry later denied this, blaming the fallout on an Algerian television channel’s misrepresentation of a map of Morocco. The ministry said it has since received a presidential apology from the Algerian president. It is still unclear whether King Mohammed VI of Morocco will attend the summit.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman officially announced earlier this month that he would not attend the summit for “health reasons”, following a phone call with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune. Other Gulf Arab leaders are expected to attend the summit.

Syria is also absent from this year’s summit, having been kicked out of the league in 2011 as punishment for President Bashir Assad’s brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy protests. However, his government has sought to improve relations with some Arab countries, with Assad making a rare diplomatic trip to the United Arab Emirates in March. Over the past year, Algeria has openly campaigned for Syria’s reintegration into the league, but several Gulf Arab states have opposed the move.

In preparation for the summit, Algerian authorities spent millions of dollars beautifying the city, repainting its famous white facades and unfurling the flags of the 22 members of the Arab League near the city’s Grand Mosque. The capital has been placed under high security for several days.

Several Algiers residents told the AP that food shortages had recently eased.

“It’s because of – or thanks to – the top,” joked a shop owner known as Mokrane.