CAIRO (AP) — Algeria is hosting the 31st summit of the largest annual Arab conference on Tuesday and Wednesday as the region battles to find common ground over a series of divisive issues.
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, with the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and four more Arab League countries, as well as the fallout of the war in Ukraine.
All those issues are expected to take center stage during Algeria's debut hosting of the summit.
The event provides an opportunity for 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.
Chief among the summit's discussion points will likely be the food and energy crises aggravated by the conflict in eastern Europe. The crisis has had devastating consequences for Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, among other Arab countries, struggling to import enough wheat and fuel to satisfy their population.
Also, the past month has seen the worst drought in several decades ravage 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 eastern European wheat exports.
To the annoyance of Ukraine and its Western backers, the war has become a point of unity among Arab League members, with nearly all adopting a stance of neutrality. Experts say this is likely to continue.
‘‘Political and economic involvement in this conflict would be costly for Arab countries,’’ said Hasni Abidi, a political scientist who teaches at Switzerland’s Global Studies Institute. ‘‘That’s why a new non-alignment (agreement) could be a realistic approach.’’
Other issues are likely to prove 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, among other league members, has remained fiercely opposed to the deals. Two weeks ago it 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 Algerian government is likely to use the summit to try to reaffirm support for the Palestinians.
‘‘The Arab League has lost its place of reference in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,’’ said Abidi.
Arab leaders will also be closely monitoring the results of Israel’s parliamentary election, which coincides with the summit. The election comes at a time of heightened tensions in the West Bank, where the Israeli military conducts 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 over the past two years.
''Morocco cannot follow Algeria in terms of military spending, so a military alliance with Israel is a way to balance the power with Algeria,'' said Michael Ayari, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Under pressure from other Arab states, Algeria invited Morocco to the summit. However, several Algerian officials told The Associated Press that Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita walked out of a preliminary meeting with his Algerian counterpart on Monday. The latter refused to speak about Iran's alleged role in supplying the Polisario Front with drones. The Algerian officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak with the media.
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry later denied this, attributing the fallout to an Algerian TV station's misrepresentation of a map of Morroco. The ministry said it has since received a presidential apology from the Algerian president. It remains unclear whether Morroco’s King Mohammed VI will attend the summit.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman formally announced earlier this month that he won’t attend the summit due to “health reasons,” following a phone call with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune. Other Gulf Arab leaders are expected to attend the summit.
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. However, his government has been seeking to improve its relations with some Arab countries, with Assad making a rare diplomatic trip to the UAE in March. Over the past year, Algeria has been openly campaigning for Syria's reintegration into the league, but several Gulf Arab states have opposed the move.
In preparation for the summit, Algerian authorities spent millions of dollars to embellish the city, repainting its notorious white facades and deploying the flags of the 22 members of the Arab League near the city’s Great Mosque. The capital has been placed under high security for several days.
Several Algiers residents told the AP that food shortages had recently disappeared.
“It's because of — or thanks to — the summit,” joked one shop owner known as Mokrane.