By John Irish
While a scene from the OK Coral may not be the Arab press’ main focus of attention, the exchange between Saudi Arabia and Libya at the close of the Sharm Al Sheikh summit became an opportunity for the Arab press to address the issue of Arab solidarity.
It’s not everyday that Libya accuses Saudi Arabia of flirting with the devil and that the Kingdom launches a diatribe about its Arab counterpart and threatens to storm out of a discussion on the future of the Middle East. Yet, on March 2, during an Arab summit to discuss and reach a consensus on providing a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, Libya’s stalwart leader pushed the Saudi Crown prince over the edge. In his usual laid back Billy the Kid demeanour and having exhausted all comparisons of the Iraq crisis with the 1962 Bay of Pigs incident, a resolute Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, turned to the Saudi Arabian delegation. He questioned the Kingdom’s recent decision to allow US forces to use its country as a base camp and referred to the previous Gulf War, firing suggestions that the Saudi regime had been ready to ‘strike an alliance with the devil.’A clearly rattled Saudi Crown Price, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz raised his fingers, waving away the Libyan leader’s implications and focussing on Gaddafi’s own CIA aided accession to power, “Who exactly brought you to power? You are a liar and your grave awaits you.” Quite evidently this had to be nothing more than a storm in a teacup.At this point, the Egyptian censors cut live proceedings, the Saudis stormed out, but thanks to a united coalition Egyptian-Levantine force, the Summit was saved and Arab solidarity restored. The boys had merely fooled around in the playground and now it was time to move onto the serious things. Had this been a public spat between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, the world’s press would have enjoyed a fruitful few days with rich puns and over-analysis adorning editorial from the front pages to the quirky cartoons at the back. However, the Arab press turned this comically grave interlude into an overwhelming desire to restore some legitimacy to Arab states and focus on the need for reform in the way Arab regimes think.The UAE-based Gulf News took the lead in pointing out that the public row merely added to suggestions that the Arabs were unable to come up with a unified stance and focussed on the missed opportunity by the Arab League to discuss a UAE initiative.The initiative, which suggested that the Iraqi leadership step down in the next two weeks in return for comprehensive international immunity, was quickly welcomed throughout the Gulf States. The Gulf News, the London based Al Hayat and Sharq Al Awsat newspapers and even the Egyptian government daily, Al-Ahram, were all quick to salute the UAE’s call for a change to the Baathist regime in Baghdad. However, the Gulf News pointed out that by leaving HH Sheikh Zayd bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s plan on paper and not discussing it in detail, the Arab League had demonstrated a lack of foresight and had ‘accepted an almost fatalistic acceptance of orchestration of Arab affairs by states outside the region.’Ahmad Al Rubaey, columnist for Al Sharq Al Awsat, chose to look at the Arabs’ historical inability to reach a common Arab standpoint, suggesting that what the ‘Arabs had done in the current summit was no more than what they had done in their previous summits.’ At the end of the day, the Arabs talked when catastrophe loomed, but ultimately achieved very little over the last 50 years in the way of solutions.The summit, dubbed as the ‘last chance’ was entitled the summit of disappointment in Al Hayat. The paper’s Riyadh-based chief, Dawood Al Shirian, lamented the implacable attitudes of states, particularly of Syria’s stance of opposing the war and rejecting the Emirati proposal, calling the final declaration rejecting war on Iraq as, ‘the continuation of Arab policy of irresponsible rejection and realism, lacking in zeal and seriousness of execution.’ He went on to indicate that Arabs were out of date and out of step with reality, but concluded hopefully that the Emirati proposal could still be rescued in the Doha summit to be held next week.The Arab News, Saudi’s English daily, took the summit’s farcical end as just another nail in the coffin of the Arab League. Gathering a range of views from prominent Saudi and Arab intellectuals, the paper illustrated the need for reform to make the Arab League’s voice a viable platform to discuss future crises in the region. In Lebanon, where opposition to the UAE plan was in line with Syria, the Daily Star took a more positive outlook on the summit. It suggested that, although the week may have been difficult, ‘if it marks the beginning of more intra-Arab realism, openness, and grappling with legitimate controversies that are expressed frankly, it shall also have been a historic week, marking the end of an era that deserves to end quickly.’But as the Arab press did not openly reject Sheikh Zayd’s plan for Iraq and many focussed on its positives, perhaps one of the Arab world’s most hardened regional commentators, Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Beirut-based Middle Eastern correspondent, dismissed the Emirates’ initiatives. He claimed that Arab pockets had merely been sweetened by American money and that this was simply a response to ‘Colin Powell’s calls last Thursday to get Saddam Hussein out of the way and let some responsible leadership take over in Baghdad.”Highlighting the desperation felt by many Arab papers, the focus in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, earlier today (March 03) was less on whether something had been achieved at the summit, but more on the need to bring down the Saudi regime. AFP reported that thousands of protestors had gathered outside the Saudi embassy chanting, “Emir Abdullah is plotting against the Arab nation.” Arab solidarity is still a long way off.