Arab leaders huddle together to conjure up ghost of unity

King Hassan of Morocco is in too much of a huff to come. The ruler of Qatar can't make it because he's a little worried that his deposed father may re-take his emirate while he's away. Muammar Gaddafi, the Arab world's favourite colonel, has not yet made up his mind. Sultan Qaboos of Oman won't be here because he was on holiday in Cairo only recently. And Saddam Hussein has not been invited because of what Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, sweetly referred to as "continuing sensitivities".

But the President of the French-speaking Comoros Islands, Mohamed Taki Abdoelkarim, - not perhaps the first name that comes to mind in almost half a century of Arab-Israeli conflict - has already arrived in Cairo to attend the make-or-break post-"peace-process" Arab summit.

It is, of course, easy to be cynical about Arab unity, the one concept that has defeated Arab Nasserists and Socialists and Communists and Baathists and kings and emirs - but never Israel - since the Arab League was created in 1945.

And it should be said that when 21 representatives of the 22-member League sit down in Cairo tomorrow to worry about Binyamin Netanyahu's election victory, 14 heads of state - if Colonel Gaddafi comes - six prime ministers or crown princes and one rather more humble delegate will take their places around the massive table specially constructed by Hossam Mustafa, an Egyptian designer, to prevent any pecking-order problems among the Arab chieftains. The table is oval and, by means of a mysterious but still unexplained device, allows each speaker to sit at one of 20 mobile table-tops and thus achieve equal status in which to defend the Arab homeland.

The humbler representative will be the ghost at the table; Abdulla Hassan Mahmoud is Somalia's man at the Arab League in Cairo, speaking (if he does) on behalf of a government that doesn't exist because Somalia is in a state of fratricidal war. Few doubt that it is for President Assad of Syria that President Mubarak called the first Arab summit in six years.

Even fewer doubt that Syria faces an American campaign of vilification to persuade the world that Syria, rather than Israel, is responsible for the collapse of the Middle East peace accords, a collapse which almost all the Arabs here will have to pretend has not yet occurred; because the Cairo summit is supposed to present the Arabs as four-square behind the American-brokered pact, ready and waiting for the West's promises of land-for-peace to be honoured.

If those promises are not honoured, then Syria may demand a renewed Arab economic boycott of Israel. Yasser Arafat will demand that the world insist that Israel stand by the Oslo accords, even though the world has no obligation to do, so since Mr Arafat sought no international guarantees for his "peace" with Israel - and King Hussein of Jordan, who almost decided on non-attendance, will urge moderation, reminding delegates that he is the only Arab leader present to have personally met the much-feared Bibi Netanyahu. President Mubarak will call for a common stand on future peace-making and, of course, for Arab unity. Which will please Libya's foreign minister, whose official title is - you guessed it - the "Secretary for Arab Unity".

King Hassan's absence is easily explained. He wasn't consulted about summit planning. Nor for that matter was King Hussein, although he is coming, along with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd being, as they say, unwell - and the Emir of Bahrain, who is taking time off from a little local trouble at home. Syria will also want to debate Turkey's threat to the Euphrates water supply and to its northern border, a pressing problem for all the Arabs, since the Ottoman Empire sometimes seems more real than Arab unity.

New alliance, page 18

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