Lebanon News

Progress at underwhelming but smooth AESD

Leaders pose for a group photo during the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: The fourth Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, hosted in Lebanon, saw progress on several issues - most prominently refugee returns - despite the low-level delegations sent by most of the Arab League member states.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani’s brief attendance was compensation of a sort to the Lebanese leadership, which was divided over whether the summit should have been postponed.

Al-Thani and Mauritania’s president were the only Arab heads of state to attend the summit, beside Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun. In his opening speech, Aoun launched an initiative to create an “Arab Bank for Reconstruction and Development.”

He called on Arab institutions and financing funds to meet in Beirut in the coming months to discuss the reconstruction of Arab states ravaged by war and put in a place a plan for the joint fund’s establishment.

During the summit’s first working session, Kuwait’s finance minister also announced the launch of a $200 million investment fund to support technological developments among Arab nations, of which the Gulf country would contribute $50 million. Qatar’s finance minister then announced that his country would also contribute $50 million.

Although the Qatari emir left Lebanon only a few hours after arriving, political sources at the summit said his visit nevertheless served two purposes. The first was to show Lebanon that it was not alone in the Arab League, despite a number of heads of state deciding not to attend at the last minute.

The second reason, according to the sources, was to thaw the ice between Qatar and other Gulf states. “The phones were working from our [Lebanon’s] end to get him to come,” a source told The Daily Star.

Shortly after Al-Thani arrived, rumors circulated that Doha would cover the costs of the summit, which its organizers estimated at close to $10 million. Another rumor was that Qatar would place a $1 billion deposit in Lebanon’s Central Bank, though a statement was quickly released denying the reports.

Rafik Chelala, the chief spokesman of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit and the head of the Lebanese Presidency’s media office, announced: “There is no truth to [these reports], although Qatar was always by Lebanon’s side ... But what was published today is not true.”

At the start of the weekend, tensions were high between Gulf states and Lebanon over discussions on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Originally, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil opposed the inclusion of the word “voluntary” in an agenda item related to refugee returns, while the Gulf officials were adamant on including it.

An article on the refugees was going to be removed from the summit’s agenda until sideline talks led to a final agreement and a statement being released Sunday addressing the issue. The statement, read by Bassil, called on the international community to shoulder its responsibility and promote circumstances that would allow the refugees to return to their home country, such as helping host countries as well as investing in the refugees’ homelands.

“They should also give aid to refugees and the displaced in their countries to encourage them to return,” the statement read.

Aoun also called on the international community to help facilitate the safe return of Syrian refugees, irrespective of a political solution being reached in their country, in his opening speech at the summit.

Nations should “exert every possible effort to ensure the suitable conditions for the safe return of the displaced Syrians to their country, particularly to accessible, stable regions or de-escalation zones, without linking this return to the political solution, and to offer incentives for the returnees to contribute to the reconstruction and stabilization of their country,” Aoun said.

Separately, caretaker Information Minister Melhem Riachi said Sunday during a tour in south Lebanon’s Jezzine that the “mere convening” of the Arab summit was a positive thing for Lebanon. He pointed out that “some internal conflicts, unfortunately” prevented higher-level officials from attending. Many Arab states decided to send low-level representatives to Lebanon after supporters of Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement tore down and burned a Libyan flag in protest of the country’s invitation to the conference.

“It’s a snowball effect once one leader withdraws, but at the end of the day, this summit isn’t to benefit specifically Lebanon, so it’s unfortunate this happened,” a Foreign Ministry source told The Daily Star.

One Kuwaiti official was heard saying that “leading Gulf countries” called on Arab states not to send high-ranking delegations.

But United Arab Emirates Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri played down claims that this was true. “We have a deep care for Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” Mansouri told MTV Lebanon. He said that as an economy minister, he was interested in the summit as a means of reviving economic growth in his country and in the Arab world more broadly.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Jadaan, in response to a question about whether his country supported Aoun’s initiative to establish an Arab fund, said: “Saudi Arabia will support all that is in the interest of the Arab world and will continue to support the Syrian people with all its strength.”

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Aboul Gheit used his speech to address some of the greatest economic and social challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa region, saying that more than 20 percent of the region’s population lives in poverty and more than half of the world’s refugee population come from Arab countries.

Education is key to the region’s development, he continued, saying it must be a focus for any agreements that come out of the summit and that “we must take advantage of the skills of our youth.”

Speaking at the summit, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdul Aziz called on Arab nations to create an effective, united economic body and work for peace in Syria and Yemen.

Senior World Bank Vice President Mahmoud Mohieldin said economic and social development goals cannot be achieved without upgrading science and technology, and he urged the creation of e-commerce strategies in the region.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah used his platform to warn against the normalization of ties with Israel before the rights of Arabs are restored. He said that developing Palestine’s economy was an impossible task under Israeli occupation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 21, 2019, on page 1.

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