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Mon 30 Mar 2009 08:47 AM

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Call for Arab unity as summit kicks off in Doha

Unity call dealt initial blow with news that Egyptian premier will not be attending.

Arab leaders have been urged to put their differences to one side as the world’s attention turns to the region with the start of the Arab Summit in Doha on Monday.

In separate speechs in the run up to the meeting, both King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, called on the region’s leaders to put their differences aside so a new chapter in Arab cooperation could begin.  Top of the summit’s agenda will be an attempt to heal a growing rift on key regional issues, such as Palestinian divisions and Iran's military backing of militant groups.

"Our objective is to remove all obstacles that stand in the way of Arab unity," King Abdullah told a recent Cabinet meeting.

Sheikh Khalifa arriving in Doha on Sunday admitted that the summit was being held at a time when the Arab nation was going through hard times, and facing increasing challenges.

A unified Arab stand was essential to meet the current global “crises and perils”, he said.

 “Our Arab nation is going through hard times and is facing several increasing challenges and perils, which mandate co-operation, understanding and co-ordination among Arab states, to reach common visions and unified positions,” he said in a statement posted in the state run WAM news agency.

February’s meeting of foreign ministers in Abu Dhabi had been part of the effort to settle inter-Arab differences, WAM added.

However, the call for a unified front was dealt an initial blow as it emerged that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would not be attending the summit, sending the Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mufeed Shehab, to head the delegation instead.

Qatari Prime Minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jabr Al Thani, said Doha respected Mubarak's decision to stay away.

"The level of the representation is up to the Egyptians," he said.

As for Qatar’s own relationship with Egypt, Shaikh Hamad added: "I can't say they are perfect, but the bilateral relations have long and deep roots. Egypt is a big Arab country, and we respect it.”

Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir, who faces an international arrest warrant, will also be attending the meeting, despite the presence of UN delegates.

Arab leaders are expected to offer him their support over the warrant.

Meanwhile, Iran is expected to send its Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to attend the summit as an "observer".