April 16, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 510

The Doha Summit – A Defeat for the Saudi-Egyptian Camp

April 16, 2009 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 510


In advance of the Doha summit in late March, 2009, Egypt and Saudi Arabia made their participation conditional on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's not being invited. Saudi Arabia and Syria held several high-level meetings in an attempt to alleviate the tensions between the two countries; from Saudi Arabia's vantage point, this was an attempt to bring Syria over from the Iranian axis to the Arab axis. At these meetings, the two sides reached a consensus on the language of the statement to be issued at the conclusion of the Doha summit, and this text was even published by the press on the eve of the summit. Despite these understandings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak decided against attending the summit (reportedly because of disagreements with Qatar), and sent instead a junior minister to represent Egypt - this in contrast to Saudi Arabia, which was represented at the summit by King 'Abdallah himself.

The Saudi-Egyptian pressure did prevent an invitation from being extended to Iran's president and to Hamas representatives, who had been invited to the previous Doha summit in January 2009. Nonetheless, the summit's proceedings and its closing statement, as well as statements by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and other Syrian speakers after the summit, point to a defeat for the position of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, as host of the previous Arab League summit in Damascus, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani, host of the current summit, delivered speeches that gave full expression to the Iranian-Syrian-Qatari position. In contrast, King 'Abdallah of Saudi Arabia did not speak at all. Libyan Leader Mu'ammar Al-Qaddafi even hurled insults at 'Abdallah. Despite this, the latter subsequently met with him, at the insistence of the Emir of Qatar.

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Aal Thani made light of the fact that the Iranian president and the Hamas leaders had not been invited to the summit, saying that what was important was not their presence or absence, but that the causes that they represent be heard at the summit. [1] And indeed, the summit's proceedings and the resolutions carried at it proved that the Iranian president was in fact present in spirit. [2]

After the summit, the Syrian president called it "the most successful summit of the last 20 years." [3] Indeed, the Iranian-Syrian camp had a number of achievements at the summit:

1) They prevented any discussion of the "Iranian threat," a concept that is at the heart of the Saudi-Egyptian alliance and over which a cold war is being waged between the two camps. [4]

2) Stipulations were added to the Saudi peace initiative such that it would be conditional not just on Israel's acceptance of it as it stands, but also on Israel's beginning to undertake its obligations stemming from the peace initiative's authoritative documents - namely, U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 (which, in contrast with the peace initiative itself, do not commit all the Arab states to normalization). [5]

3) Emphasis was placed on the option of resistance in Bashar Al-Assad's speech.

Following the summit, a number of Syrian officials interpreted the Arab position adopted at the summit in accordance with the approach taken by the Iranian-Syrian axis, without receiving any response from the Saudis. Thus, President Al-Assad stated: "[In Doha] we said that [the Arab peace initiative] has been suspended, that it is dead. The truth is that it is suspended, and it is dead." [6] Assad also claimed that, by making the initiative conditional on Israel's agreement, the Arabs had in essence suspended it; he added that Syria had already advocated this move at the January 16, 2009 Doha summit. Assad's political and media advisor, Syrian Minister Buthaina Sha'ban, told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that "the current situation requires a return to Resolutions 242 and 338." [7]

In its review of the Doha summit, the Iranian daily Kayhan stated that Saudi Arabia had been forced to take a conciliatory stance towards Syria and Qatar and to accept these two countries as a rising Arab axis, and that Saudi Arabia's retreat from its former anti-Iranian positions revealed the weakness of its regime. [8]

Prominent Saudi pundits, such as Al-Arabiya TV Director-General 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor-in-chief Tareq Al-Homayed, expressed disappointment at the results of the summit and urged the cancellation of future Arab summits (the next of which is slated to convene in Libya). Al-Rashed even claimed that Egyptian President Mubarak had done well to not attend, and opined: "The Arabs are not in need of summits. They need bread, work, and peace." [9]

Following are excerpts from statements by Arab and Iranian leaders and from articles in the Arab and Iranian media on the Doha summit.

The Leadup to the Summit: Syrian-Qatari Pressure to Revise the Language of the Initiative

Even before the summit was convened, there were reports in the Saudi press on a retreat in Saudi Arabia's position on the Arab peace initiative. The Saudi daily Al-Madina reported on a difference of opinion between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Syria and Qatar, on the other, regarding the relevance of the initiative. According to this report, Qatar and Syria demanded that the summit adopt a more hard-line stance on the initiative and that it signal that it would be taken off the table, whereas Egypt and Saudi Arabia wanted the summit to express continued support for the initiative because it served as a means of pressuring Israel, while stressing that it would not remain on the table forever (as the Saudi king had already said at the January 2009 summit in Kuwait). [10] At the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in advance of the summit, it was agreed that the peace initiative being offered today "would not stay on the table for long," and that the Arabs' continued offering of the initiative "would depend on its acceptance by Israel." [11]

In the spirit of this consensus, the concluding statement of the Doha summit read: "The Arab leaders have decided to reaffirm their commitment to the Arab initiative as [an embodiment of] the Arabs' strategic choice to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the region; this, in accordance with a diplomatic framework based on the understanding that the peace initiative being offered today will not remain [on the table] for long, and that the Arab side will continue to offer it on the condition that Israel accepts it. Likewise, its activation will be conditioned on Israel beginning to carry out its obligations in accordance with the fundamental and authoritative documents for achieving a just and comprehensive peace [i.e. U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338]." [12]

Assad Declares Arab Peace Initiative "Suspended"; Saudi Arabia Remains Silent

Another factor that contributed to the decline in the regional status of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in addition to the change in Saudi Arabia's stance on the Arab peace initiative, was this country's silence in the face of Assad's speech. In this speech, Assad presented his interpretation of the Arab position on the peace initiative. He declared that Israel had "killed the initiative," and pronounced the initiative "ineffective." Furthermore, he stated that by making the initiative conditional on Israel's acceptance of it, the Arabs were effectively "suspending" the initiative, and pointed out that Syria and Qatar had already proposed this move at the January 2009 Doha summit, which the Saudi and Egyptian leaders had boycotted. The suspension of the initiative, Assad added, meant returning to U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338.

Assad said: "This initiative is ineffective, even if we activate it, because the preconditions for activating it have not been fulfilled - for Israel will never accept an initiative based on the authoritative documents that restore the rights to those who are legitimately entitled [to these rights]. In other words, it was Israel who killed the initiative, not the [January 2009] Doha summit, as some people have tried to market.

"This initiative is not a new frame of reference, but a formula that encompasses the authoritative documents to which the Arabs must adhere in achieving peace. It also presents an incentive to Israel in the form of a collective Arab preparedness to sign a peace agreement, providing that Israel is committed to peace.

"We, the Arab side, have never abandoned, and will never abandon, these terms that guarantee our rights. That was the basis for the proposal, made at the Doha summit, to suspend the Arab initiative as a natural reaction to Israel's indifference to peace, which culminated in its aggression on Gaza.

"The fact that we have not withdrawn the initiative means that we adhere to its terms… which Israel [is trying to] evade. The suspension of [the initiative] means that the conditions for activating it - primarily the presence of an Israeli side willing to accept it - have not been met.

"It also means that [the initiative] is still there, but [only on certain] conditions. When these conditions are met, it can be activated and [all] its components can be put into practice. Those who want to work with us within this framework should convince us that there is a partner seriously interested in peace.

"As for the view that we should let the countries that want to support the peace process [pursue this] initiative as a bargaining chip [to be used vis-à-vis Israel] - we respect this view, but we say that their bargaining chip consist of the authoritative documents referred to in the initiative [itself]. They can proceed based on these documents, for they are the substance and the [fundamental] principle [of the initiative]. When they persuade the Israelis [to accept] these documents, the initiative will be there, and the work can then proceed on this basis.

"All this means that knocking on doors in order to market the initiative… is useless. We tried to activate it after every [Arab League] summit held since the [initial] launching of the initiative, in the hope of seeing a serious change on the Israeli [side] - which we consider an unlikely prospect in the foreseeable future - or an international change that would push Israel towards the peace process, though that too has not happened so far." [13]

The Syrian position on the peace process was reinforced in the statements of Assad's political and media advisor, Buthaina Sha'ban, who told the Saudi daily Al-Watan that the Arab peace process was "now suspended" and that "the current situation requires a return to Resolutions 242 and 338." [14]

Assad to Qatari Daily: The Arab Initiative Is Dead

In an interview with the Qatari daily Al-Sharq following the recent Doha summit, Assad reiterated his position: "What did we do in Doha? We said [that the initiative] is 'suspended' and that it is dead. The truth is that it has been suspended and it is dead, because from the moment of its declaration, it has had no partner, and if it has no partner, it does not exist. It exists in our minds and on paper, but not on the ground. At the [January 2009] Doha summit we declared it suspended, [but in fact] it has been suspended and dead since 2002. That is, it has not been put into action… Whoever wants to put it into action must find a partner. So [the task of] putting it into action is not in our hands… it is up to Israel. When [Israel] accepts the peace process, the initiative will be activated…

"What is this initiative? It consists of the existing authoritative documents [i.e. U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338], plus a 'reward' meant as an enticement [to Israel] - [namely] that, if Israel accepts the Madrid initiative, all the Arab countries will sign [a peace agreement with it]. Basically, the content of the initiative is the content of the authoritative documents to which it refers." [15]

Assad: "Syria and Qatar Adhere to the Option of Resistance"

In his Doha speech, Assad emphasized the importance of the resistance option: "…Peace will not be achieved with an enemy that does not believe in it, unless peace is imposed on it by the resistance. Our desire for peace is our motivation for supporting the resistance. Supporting it is a national, pan-Arab and moral duty. It is the only option we have. So let us place [the resistance] above our temporary differences, as a cause that unites us and as a principle in which we will [continue to] believe as long as the occupation persists and our rights, which have been usurped, [are not restored to us]. Resistance is an honor, not an accusation to be hurled against us. We should be proud of it…" [16]

In his Al-Sharq interview, Assad stressed that Qatar also favors the option of resistance. Asked whether other Arab leaders share his view regarding the resistance, he replied: "Qatar does [share it]. I do not [presume to] present the Qatari policy [on this country's] behalf, I am only interpreting [its position as expressed] at the Doha summit. Qatar believes in realistic [policy]. The enemy does not want peace. What is the alternative or the course [that can be taken] in parallel to the peace process? [The course of] resistance… A generation that wants to talk peace may not come. At the moment, the idea of resistance is thriving. Obviously, the resistance actions of 20 or 30 years ago were different from the actions being carried out [today]… Ultimately, everyone turns to the option of resistance, first of all out of a biological [inclination] and also out of practical considerations. There is no other option." [17]

Saudi Arabia's Official Response: Silence

To date, Saudi Arabia has issued no official response to Assad's interpretation of the Arab position on the peace initiative. Since 'Abdullah did not speak at the Doha summit, he had no opportunity to present his country's official position on the initiative. Nor has Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal or any other senior Saudi official issued a statement on this issue. An editorial in the government Saudi daily Al-Watan characterized the Arab peace initiative as "the ideal framework for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and restoring stability to the region," without mentioning the constraints added at the Doha summit regarding the limited timeframe and the condition of Israel's acceptance.

Saudi Government Press Expresses Disappointment over Failure of Doha Summit

Al-Arabiya Director: "It's Time to Discontinue These Summits"; "Mubarak Did Well to Avoid the Doha Summit"

In response to the outcomes of the Doha summit, and to Saudi Arabia's diplomatic defeat during this convention, the Saudi government press called to discontinue the Arab League summits on the grounds that they do the Arabs more harm than good. This attitude may also be due to a concern that the Saudi defeat may repeat itself at the next summit, slated to take place in Libya.

Al-Arabiya director and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote under the title "It's Time to Discontinue the Arab Summits": "Nearly all the Arab summits end up intensifying the disagreement [in the Arab world], which proves that they harm the Arabs' health more than they help it… Do we really need an Arab summit? Obviously not! [The last] 60 years of summits [have provided ample] proof of this…

"Discontinuing the summits does not mean dismantling the Arab League, [namely] the body in charge of collective Arab action. In my opinion, the Arab summits weaken the Arab League more than they strengthen it… The Arabs are not in need of summits. They need work, bread and peace - issues that none of the summits ever addressed."

Al-Rashed implicitly criticized King 'Abdallah for attending the summit by stating: "Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did well to refrain from attending [the Doha summit], for there is no benefit in summits that leave behind them a bitter taste and a negative public impression." [18]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Chief Editor: The Summits Should Be Convened Only in Cairo

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor-in-chief Tareq Al-Homayed likewise expressed dissatisfaction with the summits, and stated that they should only be convened at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, presumably in order to limit the influence of the host country. He wrote:

"The problem of the Arab world is not that its leaders do not meet. The problem is [the way in which] they meet. This is clear from all the summits that have taken place until now, for what is agreed upon is never implemented, and the suggestions always repeat themselves. We saw [Libyan leader] Colonel Qaddafi at the [recent] summit, and [heard] what he said against Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz. If that was an apology, what counts as hostility? We heard how, before the [recent] summit, [Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister] Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim sarcastically expressed his 'repentance,' [promising not to] invite Iranian President Ahmadinejad and the Hamas [representatives] to the summit. We [also] heard the Syrian president say that it was impossible to make peace with an enemy that does not believe in peace. So what about the recent Syrian statements about its desire for peace and the necessity of U.S. [involvement]? Which of these directions should we heed?...

"Some Arabs [meaning Syria] make independent decisions, yet want all Arabs to be held accountable. Others attend the summits to make their presence felt, and yet others [meaning Qatar] are doing what they can, using their money, in order to secure a role [for themselves], even if the basic requirements [for their playing such a role] have not been met.

"In light of what we have heretofore seen, I think that the Arab summits should [always] be held at the Cairo headquarters, each of them chaired by a different Arab country, on a rotating basis. This, in order to avoid ineffective competition and unwanted invitations... The trustworthy and faithful [leaders] find themselves facing leaders that say [things] but do not act on them, and who lead our region from one disaster to the next." [19]

Al-Arabiya Deputy Director: Assad's Call for Resistance Is Aimed at Defending Iran

In an article in the London daily Al-Hayat, Al-Arabiya deputy director Daoud Al-Shirian attacked certain Arab countries (meaning Syria and Qatar) that promoted Iran's interests at the summit:

"The problem is not Iran, which has been careful to hide behind slogans of defending the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people in order to camouflage its problems with the international community and promote its expansionist aspirations in the region. The problem lies in the Arab countries, organizations and parties that pretend to [promote] resistance and steadfastness, while they actually subordinate the Palestinian cause to Iran's aspirations through fabricated wars and slogans…

"The Gaza war revealed the extent of the support that Iran receives [from these forces] at the expense of the Palestinian and Arab rights, and it became clear that Iran's agents in the region had turned the Palestinian cause into a tool for defending Iran…

"The new term coined by Assad - 'conflict management' - is meant as a cover for the Iranian enterprise, which is no less dangerous than the Zionist enterprise." [20]

Egyptian Government Daily Al-Ahram: For Some Incomprehensible Reason, the Iranian Threat Was Not Even on the Summit's Agenda

Disappointment at the results of the summit was also expressed in an editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram: "Previous Arab summits have accustomed us to [the fact that] the decisions made at them are seldom carried out. For many, the summits themselves have become a [mere] formality. The Arab citizen no longer takes any interest in these annual summits and does not wait to [hear] their outcomes, because the outcomes are always the same and are known in advance…

"The funny thing is that the Iranian threat was not even one of the items on the summit's agenda, for some unknown and incomprehensible reason. This, despite the fact that Iran constantly and repeatedly [presents us] with threats, such as [its attempts] to take over the kingdom of Bahrain, its continued occupation of the three UAE islands, and its attempts to spread the Shi'ite creed in certain Arab countries - an issue that [recently] caused Morocco to officially sever diplomatic ties with Iran..." [21]

Article in Syrian Daily: The Doha Summit Adopted the Syrian Discourse

A front-page article in the government Syrian daily Teshreen, by pro-Syrian former Lebanese MP Nasser Qandil, stated that the Doha summit had seen a turning point in the position of the Arabs, who have begun to adopt the Syrian discourse:

"The resistance has managed to trigger a strategic change that has transformed the face of the region against the will of [some] Arab leaders and outside the framework of their [regimes]. Syria has received much advice and has been subjected to many pressures by brothers and friends, as well as by half-brothers and half-friends. [They urged it to] relinquish what they described as its futile stubbornness and rejectionism, so that they would be able to help it break out of the siege and [end] the policy of isolation with which it has been threatened. But [Syria] stuck to its strategic decision to remain at the very heart of the resistance [efforts]... and now the very people who displayed hostility towards it and threatened it with trouble and disasters are sending it delegations and visitors, and [trying to] engage it in dialogue... [These people] are now knocking at its gates, recognizing its role and status, seeking to cooperate with it and perhaps even asking for its help.

"The Doha summit... was meant to put an end to the Arab political discourse and to the international diplomatic and military campaigns that are aimed at changing the geography of the Arab homeland, at shifting the Arab hostility away from Israel and towards alternative targets [i.e., Iran], and at reorganizing [the Arab world] by isolating and crushing the resistance and settling scores with those who have supported and assisted it...

"President Assad's speech at the summit was a prime example of the new [Arab] discourse - a discourse that Syria had used [even] in the midst of the crises and wars, and whose [main principles] are adherence to the resistance and a quest for partners and sources of power within the shifting world [order]. This [will be achieved] by formulating a new Arab conception capable of generating alliances with rising regional powers that are interested in partnership - especially Turkey and Iran - while suspending the [Arab] peace initiative, which has been killed by Israel more than once." [22]

Article in Iranian Daily: Saudi Arabia's Retreat from Its Former Anti-Iranian Positions Reveals the Weakness of Its Regime

Iranian columnist Abdollah Keshavarz wrote in the Iranian daily Kayhan: "The Egyptian, Saudi and Kuwaiti support of the Zionist regime's attack on Gaza prompted the emergence of an Arab-Muslim alliance consisting of Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Comoro, Malaysia and Indonesia. [This alliance stood] against the joint front consisting of the Arab troika - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait - along with the Zionist regime and America...

"The Doha summit... was preceded by a preliminary summit attended by five countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Syria... at which [Saudi King] 'Abdallah was forced to take a conciliatory stance towards Syria and Qatar and to accept them as a rising Arab axis, in order to alleviate the difficult situation in which Saudi Arabia found itself. Instead of focusing on the main issue, namely on the Palestinian [issue], the Arab conciliation [efforts focused on] resolving the Saudi problem and on finding ways to improve this country's image. The statements [later] made by the leaders of Qatar, Libya, Syria and other [countries] revealed that Saudi Arabia had not achieved the results it desired. This is precisely why [Saudi Foreign Minister] Saud Al-Faisal retreated from the [former] positions of his country, and said that Saudi Arabia was not opposed to Ahmadinejad's presence at the [Arab] League summit and to his giving a speech [there] - [a stance] that strengthened the position of the 'resistance camp.' [Ahmadinejad] did not participate in the summit, of course, but Saudi Arabia's retreat from its anti-Iranian positions reveals the weakness of its regime..." [23]

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Jazeera TV, March 28, 2009.

[2] Cf. Zuhair Kseibati's article in Al-Hayat (London), April 2, 2009.

[3] Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 2, 2009.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, "An Escalating Regional Cold War - Part 1: The 2009 Gaza War," February 2, 2009, An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War.

[5] Saudi Arabia's capitulation to Syrian and Iranian pressure before and during the summit requires explanation, given that it followed long months, including the Gaza war period, during which Saudi Arabia remained committed to the peace initiative, and did not heed the calls to suspend or withdraw it. This change is perhaps attributable to one or more of the following factors: the unrest reported in Saudi Arabia in recent weeks; King 'Abdallah's weakness; a Saudi adjustment to U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of engaging Iran and Syria; and the electoral victory of the right wing in Israel.

[6] Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 2, 2009.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2009.

[8] Kayhan (Iran), April 5, 2009.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1,2009.

[10] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), March 27, 2009. On King 'Abdallah's statements at the Kuwait summit, see Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 20, 2009.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 29, 2009.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 31, 2009.

[13], April 2, 2009.

[14] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 1, 2009.

[15] Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 2, 2009.

[16], April 2, 2009.

[17] Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 2, 2009.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2009.

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2009.

[20] Al-Hayat (London), April 2, 2009.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), April 1, 2009.

[22] Teshreen (Syria), April 5, 2009.

[23] Kayhan (Iran), April 5, 2009.

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