At the most recent meeting of the Arab League, delegations from 22 countries came together. The appearance of the Syrian dictator Assad caused a stir – because Syria is taking part in one of the meetings for the first time in eleven years. In protest against the presence of the civil war lord Assad, the Emir of Qatar left immediately.
The resumption of Syria has been sharply criticized by many human rights activists and opposition figures in the region. “Syria’s admission without preconditions is the official end of the Arab Spring,” says an activist from Cairo. Like many former revolutionaries in the region, she does not want her name published. Because the suppression of voices critical of the government is not only an issue in Syria, it has become socially acceptable again in almost all countries in the region.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, as host, at least managed to make the excitement about Assad seem almost irrelevant: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also came to the port city as a surprise guest and apparently against the will of some conference participants. There he said that he wanted to promote an “honest view” of the war. And he warned: “Unfortunately, some in the world and here in your circle turn a blind eye.” By that he must have meant some members of the Arab League, most of whom are considered pro-Russian. The Syrian Bashar al-Assad anyway, his rule has been supported by the Kremlin for years.
The host, Bin Salman, began the meeting with an offer from Saudi Arabia to mediate between Ukraine and Russia. As large oil-exporting countries, Saudi Arabia and Russia are linked in the so-called OPEC+ group. Like most other Arab countries in the region, the Saudis have not taken a position on the Ukraine war and have not participated in the sanctions against Russia.
In contrast to his previous visits to Europe and the USA at the meeting of the Arab League, Zelensky was not on easy ground during his guest speech. But he didn’t beat around the bush for long. “I’m sure there are some in this room who are looking the other way on this illegal annexation. I am here so that everyone here looks honestly at this conflict, no matter how much Russia tries to influence it. There must still be independence,” he told Arab presidents, kings, crown princes and emirs. He responded vaguely diplomatically to Saudi Arabia’s offer of mediation: “Saudi Arabia plays an important role and we are ready to take our cooperation to a new level.”
For the host Saudi Arabia, Zelenskiy’s surprising invitation was probably not just about presenting himself as a possible mediator. As a positive side effect, it also meant that Assad, who was also controversial in parts of the Arab world, was not given too much space during his first appearance. Because the decision to accept Assad back into the family of Arab states was not well received by all Arab states.
The Foreign Minister of the Emirate of Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, had declared shortly before the meeting during a visit of his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock that he was actually against the re-admission of Syria to the Arab League. Qatar, along with Jordan, Kuwait and Algeria, actually wanted Assad’s return to be subject to conditions, such as a democratic process or that the regime in Damascus scale back relations with its most important ally in the region, Iran. But in the end they reluctantly bowed to an Arab consensus.
Bashar al-Assad, who has been in power for 22 years, probably did not take home any financial promises for the reconstruction of Syria from the summit in Jeddah. And should there be serious talks about peace in Syria, they would run directly between Riyadh, Tehran and Moscow, which Assad still supports with several thousand soldiers. Syria’s readmission to the Arab League is therefore initially more of a symbolic gesture.
The most important signal from the meeting in Jeddah goes to the country’s own population. As in the Gulf States, only state-supported initiatives will be tolerated in the future as a civil society. In Tunisia, a journalist was recently sentenced to five years in prison for not revealing his sources for a report on a terrorist cell smashed by security forces. Two Tunisian musicians are currently in custody for adding lyrics to a children’s song that harmlessly pissed off the president.
Citizens’ initiatives can now non-violently undermine the encrusted and patriarchal government structures of the Arab states. “We citizens are now filling the vacuum at the local level that the West and the militias left behind after the Arab Spring with concrete and implementable reform projects. We are networking with similar initiatives in Jordan and Syria,” says a civil rights activist from Tunisia.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.