Friday, March 28, 2008

Does the Current Summit in Syria Confirm the Arab Rift?

The Arab nation appears to be moving into two, opposing and often adversarial camps. For purposes of this commentary: the traditionalist faction and the militant rejectionists. The traditionalists are championed by president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; and King Hussein of Jordan, joined by the King of Morocco, the King of Bahrain and the Sultan of Oman. All reign without organized opposition in their countries, even Mubarak. All are highly involved in the global marketplace. None sent high level delegations to the summit.

The militant rejectionists include the majority of the Palestinian people, led by the democratically elected militant Hamas party; Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Syria. The rejectionists often have constituencies of long-oppressed, poverty stricken populations who seek urgent redress of their suffering or deprivation.

The Arab Summit, underway in Damascus, Syria, has highlighted a growing rift. Notably absent are the leaders of the traditionalists countries, many of whom sent low-level intermediaries to signal their displeasure. Some simply declined to attend. The reason most often cited is the traditional leaders' distress around the Syrian role in Lebanon, though there are sectarian overtones as well. Most traditionalist leaders are Sunni, while Syrian leadership is Alawi and close to Persian Iran's Shia leaders.

Iraqi leaders, both president Talebani and PM Nouri al-Maliki, declined to attend due to unrest across their country. Likewise the Lebanese factions, seemingly locked in an endless death grip, sent no representatives. Lebanon is teetering precariously toward state-failure. It's most powerful single faction, Hezbollah, appears to be readying itself for renewed war. These are powerful reasons for the Arab nation to come together and reach a consensus position, instead there is evidence of increasing polarization within the block.

The real question is how all of this is playing on the Arab "street". That begs a follow-up question regarding the ability of the grassroots Arab nation to influence entrenched leaders with agendas and national treasuries at stake. It is clear from a review of the literature and the nightly regional news (Mosaic on LINK TV) that the street remains concerned with the plight of occupied Palestine and the oppressed Palestinian masses; and the inability of Arab governments to cooperate on consensus, pan-Arab solutions. The price of bread and the distribution of oil wealth are also ongoing concerns, according recent press reports.

It is not surprising that while their leaders play political Backgammon, the Arab nation desperately seeks consensus; justice for Palestine and Palestinians; fair distribution of oil wealth and water resources; and, food on the table. And it is no coincidence that the militant rejectionists, some democratically elected and many with broad popular support, address these very issues in their appeals. It appears to this author that the rejectionists act, while the traditionalists compromise and condone the status quo. It's not a new model. It is a prescription for discontent and militancy.

One positive outcome of the rift has been the recent effort by Saudi King Abdullah to open a dialogue with all of the religions of the Levant, all peoples of The Book. In the face of militant rejectionism, certainly not unknown in The Kingdom, it is a good thing for absolute rulers to appear moderate and to entertain moderate goals. Moderation, after all, is the counterweight to revolutionary change. The problem for his royal highness is that moderation is best cultivated through the roots, rather than rained down from above. And Saudi Arabia's religious roots in Wahabism are anything but moderate. Remember, this is a country where women can't drive, or appear in public without a related male chaperone. A state that has "religious police," notorious after sending improperly covered young girls back into a burning school to die a few years back. This is quite unlike the recent Turkish effort to re-examine the Hadiths, which is driven by the country's vast religious masses who seem to sincerely recognize the value of modernizing their faith.

Beyond a new appetite for moderation, the rift has few positives beyond shining the light of international attention on the issues. Or perhaps what we're really seeing is the region taking sides before a new "coalition" military strike against Iran. In any case, the summit is an opportunity lost just when time is running out for peace in the Middle East. (Cross-posted to's Middle East Politics section).

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