Arab Economic and Social Development meeting: A summit mired in controversy

Flags of the Arab league states are seen on display ahead of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut on Jan. 17. (AFP)
Updated 31 May 2019
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Arab Economic and Social Development meeting: A summit mired in controversy

  • Arab politicians and leaders are meeting in Beirut to discuss economic and social development
  • The meeting is overshadowed by disputes over Syria and Libya and a political crisis in Lebanon itself

BEIRUT: The plan was that heads of state from the Arab world would arrive in Beirut to discuss economic and social development. But like much in Lebanon at the moment, it did not go according to plan.

To begin with, only two heads of state — from Qatar and Mauritania — are attending the Arab Economic and Social Development summit. The meeting, which Lebanon had hoped would boost its sinking economic credentials as it struggles to form a government, has been mired in controversy for days.

Should Syria be invited? Yes, said Hezbollah and its political allies in Lebanon. No, said the Arab League.

Then a debate raged over whether Libya should receive an invitation, because of the unresolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Lebanese cleric in Libya four decades ago. In the end Libya boycotted the summit after Lebanese supporters of the cleric tore down a Libyan flag on a Beirut street.

Nevertheless, the summit’s media spokesman Rafic Chlala told Arab News: “The presidents who decided not to attend the summit have sent their delegates, which means the summit hasn’t failed, as some are trying to portray it.”

The delegates have much to discuss. According to the Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Houssam Zaki, there is no dispute about the items on the agenda.

They include “Arab food security, the development of an Arab Free Trade Zone, the completion of the requirements to establish the Arab Customs Union, the Arab strategy on Sustainable Development 2030, launching the work to establish the joint Arab electricity market, the strategic vision to promote and activate joint Arab work between the tourism and culture sectors in Arab states, managing solid waste in the Arab world and developing policies that deal with Arab women’s affairs and promotion of their capacities.”

The agenda also includes ”supporting the Palestinian economy and Arab strategy to protect children and promote technical and vocational education in the Arab world, and addressing the challenges facing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and their consequences  on the Palestinian refugees.”

The issues are supposed to be economic and social, but the fallout from the Syrian civil war will inevitably dominate. Discussions took place on Saturday about a proposed Lebanese addition to the final communique calling for “the dignified return of refugees to Syria.”

Minister of Economy Raed Khoury told Arab News: “Lebanon is demanding the encouragement of the safe return of refugees to the safe zones. Some countries were rooting for the ‘voluntary return,’ while some wanted to delete the whole paragraph, on the grounds that it is a political and not an economic matter that should be discussed during the next regular Arab summit that will be held in late March, in Tunisia.”

Lebanon is currently home to more than a million refugees, which is, according to Khoury, “a huge burden on the Lebanese economy and the social situation.”

During the summit, Lebanese President Michel Aoun is expected to launch an initiative on “the development of a funding structure to rebuild Arab states that have witnessed armed conflicts.”

The assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League, Haifa Abou Ghazaleh, said: “The Beirut summit is very important as it is being held only few months before the World Sustainable Development Summit.

“Arab states have committed to implementing the 2030 sustainable development plan, with its economic, social and environmental aspects, and the Beirut summit provides an important opportunity to promote development in Arab states, by combining knowledge, youth and wealth.

“This combination gives the Arab community a great and strong chance for a new beginning, to shift toward knowledge economies. This is what we are all seeking, to build a knowledge society, turning the massive capacities, natural resources, human potential and knowledge-based wealth in the region into a base to develop social integration and cohesion, in order to reach sustainable development that will promote Arabs’ wellbeing.”

The discussions of the Arab Civil Society Forum in Beirut, which preceded the summit, indicated that the “Arab region is witnessing the highest levels in income inequality around the world, where 10 percent of its population is making 61 percent of the total income, while half of the population is only making 10 percent of it, despite the wealth of resources in the region.”

The forum called on Sunday’s summit to “adopt economic and social policies to reduce inequality in all its forms through the redistribution of wealth.”

According to the Arab League, “a strategic framework developed by the Council of Arab Ministers for Social Affairs, regarding  the elimination of multidimensional poverty” will be suggested at the summit.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is expected to launch an initiative on reconstruction in Arab states affected by armed conflict. (AFP)

The League estimates that the number of poor people in Arab states reached 116 million in 2014.

While the issues are weighty, the view on the Beirut street is unconvinced. “Lebanon is the king of missed opportunities,” Jihad Jrab, a bank manager told Arab News. “We had the opportunity of making our image look better, especially in these trying times, so that these visiting leaders would come and give the proper attention needed to the citizens of this country. It was evident that they did all they can to not gain
this attention.”

Bassam Jrab, Jihad’s cousin and an engineer in Lebanon, said: “In order to attract people to invest in the country you need to present a solid front … to show that there is security, that there is a working government, and a respectable presidency. 

 “You have a president who invited a country to attend the summit, then an employee of the government comes and forbids it from happening, what message does this convey? That there is a strong president? Or a chair’s leg?”

Lebanon has invested $10 million in hosting the summit, with an increase in security staff and the closure of streets, schools and public institutions. Nevertheless, many Lebanese questioned the country’s ability to host the summit, after eight months without a government and a looming economic crisis. Over the past couple of weeks, two storms hit the country, tore apart its infrastructure and left refugee camps flooded.

“They spend all this money on hosting a summit, while our homes are getting flooded and roads being pulled apart by these storms. Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to help the citizens?” shop-owner Omar Itani said.

There was frustration on social media. “I wish one day you [politicians] would think about the country’s benefit and see how to rescue what’s left of our dignity,” Hayat Gharzeddine tweeted. “Shame on you, such an embarrassment.”

Others were openly apathetic. “I don’t even know what the summit is about,” film maker Sandra Tabet said. “I’ve asked so many people and no one really seems to know or care.”

Decoder

Arab Economic and Social Development summits

The Arab Economic and Social Development summits are meetings of the Arab League, held at the head of state level to address issues of economic and social development among member states.


King Abdullah of Jordan slams ‘hate-filled outlaws of Islam’

Updated 52 min 6 sec ago
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King Abdullah of Jordan slams ‘hate-filled outlaws of Islam’

  • Jordanian ruler sounds warning on rising religious and political extremism

AMMAN / SINGAPORE: Attacks on interfaith harmony, mutual respect and trust are the “world’s single most important threat,” King Abdullah of Jordan warned.

Speaking on Thursday at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS) in Singapore, Jordan’s monarch condemned both “outlaws of Islam and extremist Islamophobes.”

“Perpetuators of hate-filled messages are distorting our religion’s great heritage and teachings,” he said.

King Abdullah called on the global community to tackle this challenge by “resisting hatred and exclusion,” supporting economic growth and protecting the environment.

In a keynote speech, the Jordanian ruler urged 700 delegates from 40 countries to apply the golden rule. “Loving one’s neighbor is not just an ideal. It is the golden rule that enables all of us to live side by side, to look beyond ourselves, and to achieve what we can only achieve in common.”

The conference was organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with the support of Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of RSIS, described the Singapore conference as a platform for constructive dialogue to strengthen mutual trust and understanding across communities.

“Singapore is a multiracial, multi-religious society, and we work hard to keep our country peaceful and secure. At the same time, we are part of the global community, which faces challenges posed by increased connectivity, intensifying identity politics, and infinite technological development,” he said.

King Abdullah listed Jordanian efforts including the Amman Message, the Common Word Initiative, and UN World Interfaith week.

However, when it comes to hate speech on the internet, solutions are not exclusively the responsibility of governments and big companies, he said.

“In a very real way, the internet belongs to its users. Moderate, positive voices need to reclaim this space and redirect the dialogue away from misinformation, insults and fear, and toward understanding and respect. Young men and women have a vital role in speaking up on social media and social networking sites, and using their talent for innovation to promote mutual understanding and hope.”

The Jordanian monarch also called for a “holistic approach to address security and the issues that extremists exploit.”

Perpetuators of hate-filled messages are distorting our religion’s great heritage and teachings.

King Abdullah

“We must also help to resolve conflicts, especially the core crisis of my region, the long denial of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has fueled global discord and radicalism. We all need a lasting peace, meeting the needs of both sides, with a viable, independent, sovereign Palestinian state, on 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but living side by side with Israel, in peace and security.

“We must safeguard Jerusalem, a holy city to billions of people around the world. As Hashemite Custodian of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites, I am bound by a special duty. But for all of us, Jerusalem must be a unifying city of peace.”

“King Abdullah is in a very difficult spot,” said Dr. James M. Dorsey, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Dorsey said the king’s speech reflects the geographical situation his country is facing.

“Every single border of his country is conflict-risk and impacts the country’s stability. If there is one country that desperately needs to get away from polarization and conflict and move toward conflict resolution, it is Jordan.”

Other speakers are the conference include Dr. Ali Al-Nuaimi, chairman of the World Muslim Communities Council; Bishop Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue; Dr. Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, deputy mufti and senior director at Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura; and John Alderdice, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Over the weekend, Singaporeans can experience key elements of the conference through a series of “Heartland Dialogues and Experiences” at locations across the city. These include “learning journeys” and opportunities to speak with conference speakers.

In parallel with the conference, the “Many Beliefs, One Future” exhibition explores human connections across different beliefs through a collection of artworks and artifacts. 

The exhibition is open until June 13 at the Raffles City Shopping Center.

“We must also help to resolve conflicts, especially the core crisis of my region, the long denial of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has fueled global discord and radicalism. We all need a lasting peace, meeting the needs of both sides, with a viable, independent, sovereign Palestinian state, on 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but living side by side with Israel, in peace and security.

“We must safeguard Jerusalem, a holy city to billions of people around the world. As Hashemite Custodian of Jerusalem’s Islamic and Christian holy sites, I am bound by a special duty. But for all of us, Jerusalem must be a unifying city of peace.”

“King Abdullah is in a very difficult spot,” said Dr. James M. Dorsey, a Middle East expert and a senior fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Speaking with Arab News Dr. Dorsey said the king’s speech reflects the geographical situation his country is facing.

“Every single border of his country is conflict-risk and has an impact on the stability of Jordan. If there is one country that desperately needs to get away from the polarization and conflict and toward conflict resolution, it is Jordan.”

Other speakers are the conference include Dr. Ali Al-Nuaimi, chairman of the World Muslim Communities Council; Bishop Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue; Dr. Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, deputy mufti and senior director at Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura; and John Alderdice, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Over the weekend, Singapore people can experience key elements of the conference through a series of “Heartland Dialogues and Experiences” at locations across the city. These include “learning journeys” and opportunities to speak with conference speakers.

In parallel with the conference, the “Many Beliefs, One Future” exhibition explores human connections across different beliefs through a collection of artworks and artefacts. The exhibition is open until June 13 at the Raffles City Shopping Center.