Algeria hosts first Arab summit amid Israel normalisation controversy
The 22-member Arab League held its last summit in 2019, prior to both the coronavirus pandemic and the UAE's historic US-backed deal establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
The agreement, only Israel's third such deal with an Arab state, was followed by similar accords with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, deepening the kingdom's decades-old rivalry with its neighbour Algeria.
The host of the November 1-2 summit, a steadfast supporter of the Palestinians, mediated a reconciliation deal in October between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.
While few believe the deal will last, it was seen as a public relations coup for Algeria, which has been seeking an enhanced regional and international role, on the back of its growing status as a sought-after gas exporter.
But Algeria has been unnerved by Morocco's security and defence cooperation with Israel, adding to decades of mistrust fuelled by a dispute over the Western Sahara.
The status of Western Sahara - a former Spanish colony considered a "non-self-governing territory" by the United Nations - has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front since the 1970s.
In August 2021, Algiers cut diplomatic ties with Rabat alleging "hostile acts".
Participants in the summit, with conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen also on the agenda, face the challenge of navigating the wording of a final statement, which has to be passed unanimously.
"The summit should send a message of support to the Palestinians, guaranteeing that they will not be sacrificed for the Abraham Accords," said Geneva-based expert Hasni Abidi, referring to the Arab normalisation deals with Israel mediated by the administration of former US president Donald Trump. Many Palestinians and allies saw the deal as compromising their hopes for statehood in exchange for economic advancement.
Algeria has heralded this week's meeting as an event reunifying the Arab world, but several key figures, notably Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, reported to have an ear infection, and Morocco's King Mohammed VI will be absent.
The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will also stay away, according to Arab media.
"The Arab states which have normalised with Israel are not enthusiastic about the idea of a coming together to condemn their position," said Abidi.
Algerian President "Abdelmadjid Tebboune's move to put the Palestinian issue front and centre haven't reassured them", he said.
Another source of controversy has been Algeria's efforts to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime back into the Arab League, a decade after its membership was suspended amid a brutal crackdown on 2011 Arab Spring-inspired protests.
Abidi said inviting Syria to the summit would have been "highly risky".
"Algeria realised the consequences of such a presence on the summit. Together with Damascus, it has given up on its initiative," he said.
Pierre Boussel of France's Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) said Syria's return to the League is backed by Russia, an ally of both Algiers and Damascus, which is staying away from the Algiers summit.
But, he said, "Russia has decided not to try to force this through in a way that would have affected its relations with Arab countries already badly scalded by the economic impact of the Ukrainian conflict".
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit called Friday for an "integrated Arab vision" to tackle the region's pressing food security challenges.
Boussel said the "shockwave" of the Ukraine war, which has disrupted key grain imports for the region from the Black Sea, was being felt in Algiers.
"Given the scarcity of cereals, soaring inflation and concerns about new energy routes, the Arab League needs to show it is capable of cohesion and inter-state solidarity, which it has lacked since the beginning of the crisis," he said.