Adrian Hamilton: When summitry ceases to have use

Doha’s chief claim to fame was the sight of Arab leaders embracing Sudan’s president

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So President Obama has offered the hand of friendship to the Islamic world. But before anyone gets too bogged down with what he must do to earn it and rectify all the past mistakes of America in the Middle East, it might be worth asking precisely who and how the Middle Eastern world is going to grasp the proferred hand.

We have seen from the G20 meeting in London and the Nato summit in Strasbourg just how difficult it was for Europe to get its act together for the new President's first visit to the Continent. They at least managed some kind of communiqué at the end of their deliberations, however thin. Compare that with the annual Arab League summit in Doha the week before. That managed to end early with the delegates barely speaking to each other, let alone agreeing any common stance.

From the view of the outside world, most of which barely noticed the occasion, Doha's chief claim to fame was the excruciating image of various Arab leaders including the host, the emir of Qatar, embracing President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, a man charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court. From the Arab view that was only the half of it. According to reports the meeting was enlivened by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya publicly accusing King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia of being a "British product and American ally" (and incidentally calling himself King of Kings of Africa). Jordan's King Abdullah left early, apparently miffed because he hadn't been met at the airport by the emir, while Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak was noticeable by his absence, failing to turn up for the second year in a row.

It wasn't as though there was nothing to discuss or decide on. Rarely has a summit been held at a more critical time – critical not just in the sense of the threats and problems facing the Arab world (there are always plenty of those) but in the sense that rarely has the context been quite so fluid. If a new Israeli government seems to close down the peace possibilities in Jerusalem, a new president opens up new opportunities in Washington. Falling oil prices, a tightening credit crunch, a post Gaza effort at reuniting Palestine, an Iraq emerging from occupation, a US administration willing to talk to Iran – all are changing the rules of the game. It is the time of politics and international agreement.

And what was the result at Doha? A foreshortened meeting with only the most vacuous pronouncements on Palestine, nothing at all in support of a post-US occupied Iraq and not even an offer of debt forgiveness or help for the victims of the economic crash (Saudi Arabia, it should be remembered, wouldn't even support the additional funding for the IMF in London).

No wonder that Arab commentators are now openly asking what is the point of holding summits at all in the region, while Western commentators are gleefully pointing to Doha as yet further evidence that the Arabs are just too fractious and too unreliable to earn a seat at the top table of international discussion.

Little wonder too that the Arab street has lost all faith in their leaders being able to produce any common view, or that in all the discussions of widening the membership of the UN Security Council or the boards of the World Bank and IMF, the names of India, Brazil and South Africa are constantly in play yet no one even mentions, let alone discusses, any representation from what some would regard as the most pivotal and most central region of the world's troubles – the Middle East.

Outside interference can be blamed for some of the Arabs' inability to act, no doubt, and frequently is. Put oil in the Gulf, Israel in the Levant and a total disparity between those countries with huge revenues but small populations and those countries with large populations and no revenues and you have a recipe for corruption and dissension.

The civil war in Lebanon deprived the region of its traditional centre of ideas, the reduction of Egypt to a client state of the US deprived it of its natural leadership. Saudi Arabia's attempts to fill the vacuum – both more sincere and better focused than its outside critics would have you believe – failed in Doha as it has failed at the previous summits because it stands so apart from most of the rest of the Arab world both in wealth and religious puritanism. And because, for all its sway in Washington as America's closest ally, it has never been able to show that it can influence US policy where it matters most, on Palestine.

If only the Arab world could unite, as Riyadh has tried so hard to make it unite, on its plan to proffer total Arab recognition of Israel in return for Jerusalem's agreement to return to the pre-1967 borders, with all that this implies, then there might be some hope of peace in the Middle East, if not for this generation then the next. But it won't and a government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem is certainly not going to offer even the most meagre concessions, except under pressure.

But then, given the sheer diversity of the Arab, never mind the Islamic, world, it is probably too much to expect that it can. The paradox of the Muslim world is that, while its religion may be one, its politics are as various as its people. But then Europe is hardly at one at the moment, any more than Asia, Latin America or Africa. Nor could they be said to be well led. If the Arab world has its Gaddafi, we have our Sarkozy and Latin America its Chavez.

In that sense this is probably the wrong time for big summits such as Doha, devoutly though people may demand concerted action on the issues of the day. Even the G20 proved to be not much more than a publicity event with precious little new on the table and nothing that couldn't have been agreed in smaller forums. And that may well be the way of the immediate future. The Arabs don't need another Doha. What they want are ad hoc assemblies on Palestine, on credit crunch support, on Iraq or whatever, including non-Arab participants such as Iran where necessary.

And that progress through the specific rather than solution on the grand may indeed be what the US of President Obama is most comfortable with. Surveying the disarray of London and Strasbourg, one commentator despairingly concluded that he may be the right man at the wrong time. Far from it, his combination of openness and doggedness may make him exactly the right man for the time.

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