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Arab Leaders Gather in Libya Despite Ongoing Tensions

Arab leaders are preparing to meet this weekend, for the annual Arab League summit. Libya's Colonel Moammar Gadhafi is hosting this year's meeting, despite difficult relations with several Arab leaders.

Arab foreign ministers met behind closed doors Thursday in the Libyan coastal resort town of Sirte to discuss the agenda of the weekend summit of Arab leaders.

Libyan government TV showed Colonel Gadhafi welcoming Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and shaking hands cordially inside his Bedouin tent which had green camels painted on the canvas.

Amr Moussa told journalists, before entering the closed door session that Arab unity was the single most important concern of the summit.

He says that the current (regional) situation is extremely critical and that the Arabs cannot confront it divided [as they are]. Moreover, he adds, one of the primary reasons behind the critical situation is that very division of the Arabs.

Banners, signs and posters along the palm-lined boulevard leading into the conference center where the summit is being held also urged Arab leaders to remain united. Many Arab observers, however, have noted with irony that Colonel Gadhafi has been responsible for many of the divisions plaguing Arab ranks in recent years.

At last year's summit in Qatar, the Colonel accused King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia of being an "agent of the U.S. and the CIA," creating a brief row. He has also had open spats with the leaders of Egypt, Kuwait, and several North African neighbors during his long tenure as Libyan leader.

Ongoing friction between Libya and Lebanon over the 1978 disappearance of Lebanese Shi'ite religious leader Moussa al-Sadr, ostensibly while in Libya, is behind the announcement that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman will not attend the Libya summit.

Media reports also said that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari briefly walked out of Thursday's meeting, angry over public comments by Mr. Gadhafi pledging support to a group of Saddam loyalists he met in Libya earlier this week.

Professor Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut says that Arab summits invariably invoke the time-honored theme of Arab unity, but that they never seem to achieve that goal.

"I have been in constant contact with Arab summits since the first one held in January 1963. If I were to base my judgement on the past, I'm inclined to assume that this new summit, which will be boycotted by more than half [of all] Arab presidents and monarchs will amount practically to nothing," he said.

Khashan went on to say that despite Mr. Gadhafi's reputation for creating spectacles at Arab summits, he doubts that the Colonel wants to antagonize his fellow leaders, this year, since he ultimately needs their support for plans to have his sons succeed him when he dies.

"I think Gadhafi's main concern right now is not to quarrel with Arab leaders, but to ensure smooth succession and to place his sons in key positions, so that they will replace him, one of these days," he said.

The ongoing tensions in Jerusalem and the Palestinian-Israeli crisis will be at the top of the agenda of the summit. 27 items in total are reported to be on the agenda to be discussed by the Arab leaders. The Palestinians are seeking a strong Arab stance in the face of Israel's plans to expand Jewish housing in east Jerusalem. They also want millions of dollars in funding for Palestinians living in that section of the city.