ALGIERS, Algeria — Arab leaders convened on Wednesday in Algeria for the second day of the 31st summit of the largest annual Arab conference, seeking common ground on several 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.
It was the first Arab League summit since a string of normalization deals with Israel divided the region.
The kings, emirs, presidents and prime ministers were discussing thorny issues including several countries’ establishment of diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
The summit’s discussions are also focused on the food and energy crises aggravated by Russia’s war in Ukraine 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.
Reduced grain supplies have also deepened hunger that grips Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished country, after eight years of civil war. According to United Nations estimates, half a million Yemen children are severely malnourished and more than two-thirds of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The war in Ukraine has also added to Yemen’s misery as the Eastern European country supplied 40% of Yemen’s grain before Russia’s invasion.
Reports on Wednesday from Turkey that Russia has agreed to return to a Turkish and UN-brokered deal that allows the shipment of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, may provide some relief for the Arab leaders, grappling with soaring food prices and shortages of basic staples.
Many Arab countries are almost solely dependent on Ukrainian and Russian wheat exports and fertilizers, and Russia’s reinforcement of its blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Sunday threatened to further escalate the crisis.
The Arab League summit also 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.
Algeria, along with other Arab countries, remains fiercely opposed to the series of normalization agreements that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco signed with Israel over the past two years and that have divided the region into two camps. Sudan has also agreed to establish ties with Israel though this has not materialized so far.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune vowed in his opening speech Tuesday to put forth considerable efforts at the summit to try to reaffirm support for the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel as the Arab and international communities’ attention shifts to other conflicts and crises.
“Our main and first cause, the mother of all causes, the Palestinian issue, will be at the heart of our concerns and our main priority,” Tebboune said. He blasted Israel for its “continued occupation” of Palestinian territories and “expanding its illegal settlements.”
Tebboune said that “the regional and international context is marked by rising tensions and crises, particularly in the Arab world, which in its modern history hasn’t seen a period as difficult as the one it is currently undergoing,” he added.
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 Hamas terror group, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Addressing leaders including United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, Tebboune called for a UN General Assembly session to give full membership to the state of Palestine.
“Algerian foreign policy has gone on the offensive at the regional, African and Arab levels,” said Geneva-based expert Hasni Abidi.
“The paradox of this summit is that it’s being billed as a unifying event, whereas each Arab state actually has its own agenda and goals fitting its interests,” Abidi said.
“So ultimately the Arab League is the perfect mirror of Arab foreign policy.”
That point is underlined by the absence of several key figures, notably Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is reported to have an ear infection, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, and Bahrain’s leader.
“The Arab states which have normalized with Israel are not enthusiastic about the idea of a coming together to condemn their position,” said Abidi.
The Arab summit comes at a time of heightened tensions in the West Bank, where the Israeli military has conducted nightly arrest raids in searches for Palestinian militants. The anti-terror offensive has so far netted more than 2,000 arrests.
It has also left over 125 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.
The 22-member Arab League last held its summit in 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. A final declaration from the gathering in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, is expected later on Wednesday.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.