Over the last few days, Egypt has hosted several Egyptian-Arab summits with various Gulf and Arab leaders whose countries have been invited by the Saudi government to participate in an unprecedented summit next month with US President Joe Biden.
In my article published last week in Al-Ahram Weekly, I went over the US agenda for this significant summit, one that reflects the strategic priorities of the Biden administration and corresponds to a great extent with Israeli concerns and priorities.
The Arab countries that are participating in the Jeddah summit with the US President should prepare an Arab agenda for it and one that reflects a common Arab vision for the Middle East over the next few years and at least until the next US presidential elections in 2024.
I believe this was the main objective of the Egyptian-Arab summits that have been held in Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has hosted four, the first with the king of Bahrain at Sharm El-Sheikh and the second a tripartite summit that brought together the king of Bahrain, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Al-Sisi.
The third summit was with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed bin Salman, who paid an official visit to Egypt from 20 to 22 June, and this was followed by another official visit by a Gulf ruler, Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The leaders welcomed the Jeddah summit, and besides discussing bilateral questions they formed joint positions on questions that would be raised in the summit with Biden. It goes without saying that from the standpoint of Arab priorities, three main questions merit special attention.
The first is how to move ahead on the Palestinian issue. The status quo is untenable, and the Arab leaders will want to encourage the US administration to push for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
The plan for an “economic peace” between the Palestinians and the Israelis advocated by former US president Donald Trump and ignoring the national rights and aspirations of the Palestinians – the two-state solution – will not guarantee security and stability in the Occupied Territories or in the larger Middle East.
To put this differently, discussing and deciding on future security arrangements in the Middle East without integrating a viable and acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem in such arrangements would prove futile and self-defeating in the long run.
The second question of importance to Arab leaders is how to manage “expanding regional integration,” in White House terminology, which means the recognition of Israel by Arab countries including Saudi Arabia in a way that does not perpetuate the Israeli occupation of Arab territories including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
It would be interesting to hear from Biden whether the US administration still abides by the decision of former president Trump to admit Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights when this is against international law and UN resolutions.
The third question, related to the previous two, centres around how to deal with Iran, which according to international experts is now approaching the ability to manufacture a nuclear device while perfecting its arsenal of long-range missiles.
That might be the most intricate and complicated question facing the participants at the Jeddah summit in July. There are competing approaches to it on the Arab side.
In the wake of the on-and-off negotiations that have been taking place for more than a year now to push the Iranians into recommitting to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the Iran nuclear deal – and the US rejoining it after it officially withdrew in May 2018, the Arab governments will be interested to hear what Biden has to say on how his administration plans to deal with Iran under two different scenarios.
The first scenario is where both the US and Iran rejoin the nuclear deal, bearing in mind what this would mean for US policies on the “destabilising” role played by Iran and its Arab proxies in the Middle East and the Gulf. The second scenario is the failure of the negotiations and the consequent result of Iran progressing rapidly and almost secretly in shortening the breakout period to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Unquestionably, this second scenario would be the worst case from an Arab point of view. The Arab countries would face a dilemma on the best way to deal with this unprecedented threat to Arab national security interests, including those of the Gulf countries. There are those who believe that some Arab countries would seek to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran possesses one.
Maybe this scenario has been encouraging talk of setting up some kind of security alliance between the Arab countries and Israel, with the US providing an umbrella to contain Iran and, in the worst case, launching an attack on its nuclear installations. However, it is doubtful that all the Arab countries would accept such an alliance. It also brings up the question of the regional fallout of a solo Israeli attack on Iran, which would set the Middle East on a highly uncertain, unpredictable, and dangerous path.
The three questions mentioned above will define the Jeddah summit and reshape the Middle East for years to come against the background of a volatile regional and international scene exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
In the meantime, and as far as this war is concerned, I believe that the Arab leaders will reiterate their calls for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and the resumption of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to reach a negotiated solution that will guarantee the political and security interests of both countries.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.