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Arab summit: Turning a blind eye

Arab leaders meeting in Jordan failed to address the critical economic challenges facing the region

As Arab summits go, the latest, held on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan, was a relative success. In contrast to the poor showings of recent meetings, the turn-out was good, with most of the heavy-weight Arab countries represented by heads of state.

One major development on the sidelines was a reconciliatory meeting between King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Sisi of Egypt. But the succession of public statements by Arab leaders inside the conference chamber contained few surprises. The calls for an independent state for the Palestinians were followed by pleas for the settlement of conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

None of the heads of state suggested how these wars might be resolved or terrorism defeated. Arab leaders also failed to mention the other major challenge: the fall-out from a long period of low oil prices.

Spending slashed

The implications are considerable. For those producing oil, the steep decline in revenues has forced governments to introduce swingeing cuts to public spending and to trim fuel and power subsidies. While countries without their own energy sources are paying less for their imports, they are also seeing the mass return of migrant workers, as construction and infrastructure projects in the Gulf are slashed.

The inevitable effect of all these developments is a further rise in unemployment across the regionin particular among young Arabs. This problem has the potential to destabilise societies and push more people into the arms of jihadist groups which are seeking to undermine the traditional Arab order. Such a serious challenge to the collective status quo was surely one that deserved attention at the summit.

Further output cuts?

Another issue of concern to all those at the Dead Sea meeting should have been the strategy being adopted by oil producers to try to raise prices and stem economic decline. Opec and non-Opec states will decide in May whether to extend the current oil production cut by a further six months. The expectation is that they will.

But the issue is far from clear cut. A counter argument asserts that oil is a depreciating asset and producers should market as much of it as they can while there's still demandno matter how low the price might fall. A Saudi columnist urged producing states to "take advantage of the value of oil, rather than leave it under the ground", adding that those who still believed they could influence global prices were living "in the past or in a world of dreams".

These are all huge subjects, matters of life or death in the long run for some Arab regimes. Too important, one might say, to be left off the agenda of Arab summits.


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