Arab heads of state are slated to attend Friday’s Arab League summit in the Saudi Red Sea resort town of Jeddah, including the president of Syria for the first time in over a dozen years. The crises in Syria and Sudan are expected to be major topics of discussion at the meeting.
Arab leaders began arriving in Jeddah Thursday in the lead-up to Friday’s 32nd annual Arab summit, due to be hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Among those expected to be present is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has not attended an Arab League summit since 2010, the year before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Arab League foreign ministers restored Syria’s membership in the body at a meeting in Cairo earlier this month.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad told journalists in Jeddah Wednesday that Syria is a key player in the Arab League.
He said that Syria welcomes any Arab efforts to resolve the conflict in his country and that Damascus must not be absent from any Arab summit meeting.
Arab League Deputy Head Hossam Zaki told Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV that Friday’s summit would discuss the return of Syrian refugees to their country and the rebuilding of Syria, But he said the latter question was not “an easy issue to resolve, given the sanctions that Western countries have placed on Damascus.”
Zaki also noted that the Arab peace initiative with Israel, which dates back to 2002, “remains unchanged from its original formulation.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan welcomed Syria’s return to the Arab League in remarks Wednesday, saying that Syria’s participation in Arab decision-making will be a key factor in resolving many thorny issues going forward.
He said that the world today is facing serious problems and threats, and that it is important that Arab states unite to address those challenges together in unison and do more to join ranks to make the region safe and secure.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, told VOA that the summit will showcase both the Saudi crown prince and the Syrian president.
He said that this year’s summit is meant to confirm Mohammed Bin Salman’s leadership position in the Arab world and to show that he is able to bring Arab leaders together in a symbolic or colorful way, while Syria’s Assad is more of a divisive figure.
Abou Diab also noted that, according to Jordan’s foreign minister, the summit will conclude with a call for Syria to take back political refugees and get a handle on drug smuggling from its territory to other Arab states, in exchange for Arab financial support.
Arab League head Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the conflict in Sudan is also on the agenda of Friday’s summit, adding that bringing some semblance of peace back to the country is a top goal of Arab leaders.
He said that Sudan is a strategic Arab country and that the igniting of a military conflict in the cities and streets of Sudan in such a sad way has pained the hearts of most Arabs and that the summit will try to restore calm to the country to allow the pursuit of political dialogue.
Saudi-sponsored peace talks between Sudan’s warring sides have taken place in Jeddah in recent days, so far without any reported progress.