On Thursday Baghdad hosted the Arab League summit for the first time since Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This event is being hailed as a milestone for the war-torn country and its leaders and diplomats. But the summit is a mere mirage of progress, and provides tangible evidence that the nation’s funds are not being properly allocated. It also highlights the eagerness of the Maliki government to identify as Arab and thus dispel notions that it is heavily influenced by Iran. It is viable to celebrate the summit as a step forward for the Maliki regime in saving face, but the view that it represents progress in the daily lives of Iraqis or that it is a sign of progressive pan-Arabism is an entirely misinformed and misled perception.
While the League broadcasted the purpose of its meeting as a discussion of reform in the Arab world and an attempt to work towards a solution to the conflict in Syria, it made very little strides forward on these topics. The irony of the latter goal is that Maliki’s government has taken no firm position against the brutal crackdown on protesters by the Assad regime, and is in fact allied with the Syrian president. Were it not for the Arab League’s formal condemnation of the Syrian government, the Iraqi regime would have gladly had President Bashar seated amongst the Arab leaders. Instead, Syria was the only Arab nation not represented. The League endorsed Kofi Anan’s peace plan and the need for a cease fire but did not call for the ouster of Assad and his government. The banter exchanged at the summit produced nothing of substance, with its façade of pan-Arab cooperation bolstered by the leaders’ single common interest of making the Arab League visible on the international stage.
The stance of some Arab League nations on Syria in opposition to that of the Iraqi government highlights another grave conflict that is boiling under the surface of this highly formal event; namely, the sectarian divisions that are becoming increasingly visible not only in Iraq but in several states throughout the region. On the regional level, many Arab states are experiencing shifting power structures as a result of the ongoing Arab Spring uprisings, and this has strengthened and weakened various alliances between states, often based on the Sunni-Shia divide and the implication of non-Arab actors in that conflict. On the national level, Sunni Arabs in Iraq feel that their government is not representing them and Iraqis as a whole are disgruntled by identity politics that were never so pronounced prior to the U.S. invasion. Maliki viewed the summit as an opportunity to make amends with Sunni Arab states and to prove himself as a player in Arab affairs. This marks the first time that the summit was led by a Shia-led Arab state, and one whose government has close ties with Iran.
While discussions of Syria brought no hope for its people, discussions of Iraq largely missed what could have been a wise target. Not only did the content of discussions at the summit sidestep the plight of ordinary Iraqis, but the event itself was a disturbance in their daily lives. Baghdad was essentially shut down for a week as a holiday was declared, which means that people who are struggling to make ends meet financially for their families lost business and experienced a rise in the price of food. Many also lost cell phone service, compounding the problem of communicating with family members in nearby neighborhoods, which is already a feat due to walls and checkpoints which have become a formidable intervention in the once communal cityscape. To distract from that reality, roads from the airport to the palace which housed the Arab leaders acted as a grand entrance to the hall, and security was heightened to further contribute to the narrative of Iraq’s transition into a safe and prosperous country. The willingness of the Maliki regime to spend $500 million on this lavish event is a major indication of their skewed priorities and provides some insight into the source of the dire economic situation that is current day Iraq.
Talk of the summit as a success for Iraq has further legitimized the Iraqi government, and thus further hurt the nation’s people in their efforts to fight the corruption that they face daily. This rhetoric also indirectly adds to the false notion that America liberated Iraq from its former isolationist dictator and paved the way to a more cooperative alternative. The Maliki government is not interested in Arab unity or the plight of suffering Syrians and Iraqis, and a close look at the Arab League Summit shows us where their allegiances do in fact lie.