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The Doha Summit: A user's guide

The Arab Summit sets up shop outside of the Doha Sheraton (image: Doha Summit official site)

On Sunday, the leaders of the Arab world are scheduled to converge on the Doha Sheraton (where I recently spent two insomnia-filled nights myself) for the 21st regular Arab Summit (English here). Very high expectations have been placed on this event ever since the Saudis took it upon themselves at the Kuwait Economic Summit to push for Arab reconciliation and reach out to Syria. For weeks, Arab diplomatic circles buzzed with speculation about Doha: would it signal a new age of Arab politics, transcending the "moderate/rejection" divide of the Bush years?  Would it unveil a new Palestinian unity government? Would it present a new Arab peace initiative, or rescind the old one?  On the eve of the Doha Summit, here's what we know and don't know about the answers to those questions, and more:

First, who will attend? The roster is unsettlingly unresolved the day before the event is to be held.  Here are some of the possible attendees drawing attention. 

  • Mahmoud Ahmedenejad? Early word had the Qataris inviting the Iranian President as an observer.  The Egyptians, Saudis, and others objected.  The latest word is that Ahmedenejdad will not make the trip, but keep an eye out for a dramatic, unannounced visit. 
  • Omar Bashir? There's a lot of regrettable support for the Sudanese dictator in the Arab world, and at one point Bashir was planning to attend the summit in his capacity of head of an Arab state. But then concerns began to grow that he would be arrested in accord with the International Criminal Court warrant. While he's made showy trips to Cairo and Eritrea, at this point it looks like he will not make the longer flight to Doha.  If he does, brace for an extremely distraction frenzy.
  • Hosni Mubarak? The bad blood between the aged Egyptian President and the Qataris has become fierce indeed. Egypt feels wronged by al-Jazeera, and is deeply wedded to the moderate/rejection line which Qatar is trying to overcome. Mubarak has been trying to destroy the summit, flying around trying to convince other leaders not to attend, and the failure of the Palestinian talks thus far mean that he has nothing dramatic to present. Current word is that he will not make it. This may hurt the summit, but also risks highlighting Mubarak's feeble diplomacy (after all, he's the one who failed to deliver on the Palestinian reconciliation track). 
  • King Abdullah of Jordan?  Despite a recent spat over an al-Jazeera broadcast, Abdallah will be there.  He always attends summits, and made a pointed statement that al-Jazeera and the Qatari government were not the same thing.
  • Hamas? Those hoping for a Fatah-Hamas breakthrough will want representatives of both sides there, those hoping to maintain the containment of Hamas will not.  Qatar, which has hosted Khaled Meshaal numerous times and is a big advocate of a unity government, will likely invite him this time.  Whether he comes and what he does will be closely watched. 
  • Nuri al-Maliki?  The Iraqis reportedly decided to send their Prime Minister instead of President Jalal Talabani, which could be taken as a signal of their growing political integration into the Arab world and Maliki's personal growing involvement.  I expect him to be there.  

Second, what will they do?  Once everyone's there or not there, as the case may be, attention will turn to  a series of key issues:

  • Syria. The leading storyline will be the nature of Syrian engagement. The Saudis have been driving a rapprochement with Syria which has become one of the key elements of the shifting Arab order.  Summit watchers will be looking to see how this plays out in the deliberations, in the personal dynamics (will there be a recreation of the famous "couch summit" in Kuwait, where the Saudis literally sat Bashar al-Asad down with his rivals for the photographers?), and in the final statement.  It's linked to the American outreach to Syria (i.e. the Feltman/ Shapiro visit), to the endless struggle over Lebanon, to Syria's role in the intra-Palestinian struggles, and to the possibility of movement on the Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Expect to see a big show of Syrian amity. 
  • Palestinian unity talks.  The hopes of having a national unity government to present in Doha ended this week, after the talks stalled. The talks will likely continue on the margins in Doha, but don't expect a resolution.
  • Arab peace initiative. All indications point to the Summit taking the same line which the Saudi leaders have been repeating at every opportunity: the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table, but won't stay there forever. They may try to frame a sharper, direct challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu to commit to a two state solution and begin peace talks. 
  • Iran. Will the summit focus more on Israel or on Iran? Whether the summit frames the major challenges to the Arab world around Israel or around Iran will be carefully monitored -- as will how confrontational the Arabs are towards the Iranians. 
  • Economic crisis. How has the global economic crisis affected the region?  Don't expect a great deal of overt discussion of this, but there may be signs nonetheless -- is the summitt being run on a budget?  Does the Sheraton put out the good buffet or the ordinary one?  
  • Appear on al-Jazeera.  The roster of Arab leaders with complaints about the Doha based station roughly equals the roster of Arab leaders. That doesn't bother the station management -- when Mahmoud Abbas came to Doha a few weeks ago to complain about al-Jazeera's coverage of Palestinian issues, they offered him an hour live interview to make his case (he declined). Who will they offer such a courtesy to this time, and who will accept?   
 This isn't just another Arab summit.  It's the first real gathering of the Obama era, and it's a rare chance to put to rest the old habits and establish new ones.  I think that the U.S. should be encouraging Arab reconciliation and a Palestinian national unity government, and moving aggressively to transcend the Bush-era moderate/rejection lines of division.  A lot of forces have a vested interest in holding on to those divisions, though.  Whether the Doha summit will advance those hopes or fall back into the old habits will tell us a lot about where the region is heading over the next months.  And now, all Middle East political eyes turn to Doha!

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