Arab summit takes place at time of deep rifts

KUWAIT CITY (AFP) - An Arab League summit opens in Kuwait on Tuesday at a time of deepening rifts between its member states and without any end in sight to the Syrian conflict.

With Doha in the eye of the storm, the region's leaders are expected to discuss the row which has pitted Qatar against Gulf partners Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Egypt.

They will hold a special session to discuss "clearing the atmosphere and compromises," said the Arab League assistant secretary general for political affairs, Fadhel Jawad.

Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah, and Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi confirmed at a joint press conference Thursday that the differences will be debated but declined to reveal any specific mediation efforts.

Sheikh Sabah acknowledged that the summit was being held under "highly delicate" circumstances and that Arab countries were faced with serious challenges.

Qatar's perceived support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood lies at the core of the dispute, over which Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama have recalled their ambassadors from Doha in an unprecedented move between Gulf states.

Kuwaiti political analyst Dhafer al-Ajmi said the host country's ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, was likely to use his skills as a mediator.

"Internal Arab disputes are overshadowing the summit but I am optimistic that Kuwait and its emir could achieve a breakthrough," said Ajmi, who heads the Gulf Monitoring Group, an independent research centre.

The summit will also debate a new counter-terrorism pact tabled by Egypt, Jawad said, amid reports that Cairo and Riyadh could press for the Muslim Brotherhood to be declared a terrorist organisation.

Another top item will be the Arab Spring and the deadly fall-out from the uprisings which have rocked the region over the past three years.

"We are experiencing huge unrest in most parts of the Arab world... and it's time that we discussed the future," Arabi said.

The revolts have resulted in the ouster of three presidents, the killing of a fourth head of state and triggered a devastating civil war in Syria.

The democratic reforms demanded on the Arab street are not expected to figure on the agenda. "Most regimes have already branded the Arab Spring as chaos and terrorism," Ajmi said.

Kuwait said 13 heads of state have confirmed they are attending the annual summit, this year being held under the slogan of "solidarity for a better future".

The three-year-old Syrian conflict, which has cost more than 140,000 lives, will figure prominently at the summit, Arab League officials said, following the failure of two rounds of peace talks in Geneva.

Arabi said that although the last Arab summit held in Doha in March 2013 decided to allocate Syria's vacant seat to the opposition National Coalition, steps remain to comply with League regulations.

"We are holding consultations with the National Coalition over the issue but at this summit the Syrian seat will remain vacant," Arabi said.

According to Ajmi, Arab leaders are sending the "wrong signal" by not allowing the opposition to fill Syria's seat.

The Syria government's brutal repression of protests which erupted in mid-March 2011 resulted in its suspension from the Cairo-based Arab League.

The Istanbul-based Syrian Coalition is an umbrella organisation of several opposition groups.

The latest US push to advance peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel will also be discussed by Arab leaders.

Arabi said Palestinian leaders Mahmud Abbas, fresh from talks with US President Barack Obama in Washington last Monday, will brief his Arab counterparts on latest developments.