ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Arab leaders on Tuesday met in Algeria at the 31st summit of the largest annual Arab conference to seek common ground on divisive issues in the region. The meeting comes against the backdrop of rising inflation, food and energy shortages, drought and soaring cost of living across the Middle East and Africa.
The event provides an opportunity for Algeria — Africa’s largest country by territory — to showcase its leadership in the Arab world. Algeria is a major oil and gas producer and is perceived by European nations as a key supplier amid the global energy crisis that stems from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The 22-member Arab League last held its summit in 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. In the years since, new challenges have drastically reshaped the region’s agenda — the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and four Arab countries, as well as the fallout of the war in Ukraine.
The summit’s discussions on Tuesday and Wednesday will focus on the food and energy crises aggravated by the war that has had devastating consequences for Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, among other Arab countries, struggling to import enough wheat and fuel to satisfy their populations.
Deepening the crisis, is the worst drought in several decades that has ravaged swaths of Somalia, one of the Arab League’s newer members, bringing some areas of the country to the brink of famine.
Russia’s reinforcement of its blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Sunday threatens to further escalate the crisis, with many Arab countries near solely dependent on Ukrainian and Russian wheat exports.
The war in Ukraine “has exacerbated the food and energy security crisis, along with a number of other reasons … climate change and natural disasters,” Tunisian President Kais Saied said in the opening address. He called for a “robust multilateral action” to ensure Arab food security.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he’s been “working non-stop” with all relevant players on preserving and extending the deal on Ukrainian grain exports from its Black Sea ports.
“We must do all we can to … provide relief to those in need, including countries in the Middle East and North Africa relying on accessible and affordable food and fertilizers — both from Ukraine and from Russia,” said Guterres, a guest of honor at the summit.
To the annoyance of Ukraine and its Western backers, the war has become a point of rare unity among Arab League members, with nearly all adopting a stance of neutrality.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed that stand in a letter to the summit’s participants without mentioning the war. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa “play an increasingly significant role” in a “multipolar system of international relations” as the world is faced with a “serious political and economic change,” Putin said in the letter that was posted on the website of the Russian Embassy in Algiers on Tuesday.
Other issues are likely to remain more divisive. The series of normalization agreements the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco signed with Israel over the past three years have divided the region into two camps. Sudan has also agreed to establish ties with Israel.
Algeria has remained fiercely opposed to the deals and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune vowed in his opening address to put forth considerable efforts at the summit to try to reaffirm support for the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
“The Palestinian question is the mother of all questions,” Tabboune said. He blasted Israel’s “aggression against Palestinians” and urged unity of Palestinian political factions as “the only way out of the impasse.”
Last month, Algeria hosted talks in a bid to end the Palestinian political divide and reconcile the Fatah party, whose Palestinian Authority rules parts of the occupied West Bank, and the militant Hamas group, which has control of the Gaza Strip.
The summit in Algeria coincides with Israel’s parliamentary election at the time of heightened tensions in the West Bank, where the Israeli military has conducted nightly arrest raids in searches for Palestinian militants. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in recent months, including armed gunmen, stone-throwing teenagers and people uninvolved in violence.
The meeting also comes as tensions mount between Algeria and Morocco, with Algiers having severed diplomatic ties with its North African neighbor last year. The persisting feud between the two countries stems from a dispute over the Western Sahara, a territory annexed by Morocco in 1975. Sahrawis from the Polisario Front are backed by Algeria and have sought independence for the region for decades.
Morocco’s growing ties with Israel, which include a military and security deal, have further soured relations between the North African neighbors. Under pressure from other Arab states, Algeria invited Morocco to the summit. After a quarrel on Monday, Morocco’s King Mohamed VI decided to stay away “because of the wrong signals sent by Algiers,” a Moroccan diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The country’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, will attend the meetings.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman formally announced earlier this month that he won’t attend the summit due to “health reasons.”
Syria is also absent from this year’s summit, having been expelled from the league in 2011 as punishment for President Bashir Assad’s brutal government crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Jeffery reported from Cairo and Surk from Nice, France.