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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 19:58 GMT 20:58 UK
Arab world set for subdued summit
By Heba Saleh
BBC correspondent in Tunis

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa in Tunis this week
The league has three main issues to tackle

Arab leaders are to start their delayed annual summit in Tunisia on Saturday as the region faces even more crises and challenges with Israel's offensive in Gaza, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and America's imposition of sanctions on Syria.

Yet again the risk for the leaders is that their populations will see them as ineffectual and unable to influence events in the region.

"I hope the Arabs will now wake up. I hope the summit will be successful, and [the leaders] will prove they are men," said a Tunisian woman expressing a widespread sentiment in the region.

There is an almost permanent sense of grievance in the Arab world today. The killing and destruction of homes in Gaza and the pictures of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by their American jailers have only added to the feelings of humiliation.

Aware of the frustration of their people, but divided and powerless, Arab leaders are likely to resort to the usual condemnations. The Tunis meeting will almost certainly adopt resolutions lambasting the Israelis, the American abuses in Iraq and the sanctions on Syria. But beyond the rhetoric, little else is expected.

Gulf absentees

That may be one of the reasons at least eight of the region's 22 leaders are staying away from the meeting.

Guards outside the Tunis summit venue
Tight security is in place for the summit

With the exception of the Emir of Qatar, none of the rulers of the Gulf countries is attending the summit. The most notable absentee in this group is Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Another possible reason for his absence is the desire to avoid the fractiousness which has tended to mark previous Arab meetings. During a session broadcast live in last year's summit, the microphones captured an embarrassing verbal spat between the Crown Prince and the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

This time, only the brief opening statements will be broadcast live and everything else will take place behind closed doors.

But the Tunis summit has already had its share of controversy and ill-feeling. It was to be held eight weeks ago, but Tunisia shocked its Arab guests by calling it off at the last minute.

An official statement said that some countries were obstructing Tunisia's proposals for Arab political reform, and refusing to allow the word "democracy" to be mentioned in the final statement. Some analysts say that was a criticism of the conservative Saudis.

Reform theme

This time, the leaders are to adopt a declaration on reform which has been hammered out by foreign ministers during preparatory meetings earlier this month in Cairo.

It is being seen as an attempt to deflect American pressure, after President Bush declared that 60 years of supporting autocratic regimes in the region had not bought the US security.

Regional governments were outraged when the US announced it would launch its Greater Middle East Peace Initiative which was drawn up without consultation with them.

The Americans have now revised the initiative but they are still pressing for reform. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Arab officials in Jordan last weekend that the G8 would release a document on "how we want to partner with you".

A leaked version of the declaration to be adopted by the Arab Summit commits governments to widening political participation, respecting human rights and empowering women. But it leaves it to each country to determine the nature and pace of the reforms it should adopt.

To many in the Arab world, that will mean they should not hold their breath.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Heba Saleh
"Behind the scenes there are likely to be the usual recriminations"



SEE ALSO:
Arabs set date for fresh summit
19 Apr 04 |  Middle East
Tunisia cancels Arab League talks
03 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Quick guide: Arab League
10 Sep 03 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Arab League
19 Nov 03 |  Country profiles


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