Beirut summit: Arab leaders agree 29-item economic agenda

Beirut summit: Arab leaders agree 29-item economic agenda
Arab leaders have agreed a 29-item economic agenda in addition to encouraging the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland at the conclusion of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit. The 20 countries taking part in the summit issued a joint statement called the Beirut Declaration on Sunday, calling for the establishment of an Arab free trade zone and the international community to support countries hosting refugees and displaced people.

Reading out the statement, Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary general of the Arab League, reminded the international and Arab donor communities to "help alleviate the suffering of refugees and displaced and to secure funding for developmental projects in host countries".

In his opening speech, Lebanon President Michel Aoun had called for encouraging the "safe return of displaced Syrians", saying that the process should not be linked to a political solution in the war-torn country.

A key point of contention ahead of the meeting related to the wording of Article 13 in the summit statement. Lebanon, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, called for their return to Syria after President Bashar al-Assad regained control of most of the country. Other countries had insisted this discussion be linked to a political solution.

The summit had also been marred by divisions among Lebanese politicians and regional leaders over the reinstatement of Syria into the 22-country Arab League. While Lebanon's foreign minister Gebran Bassil called for Syria's return to the bloc, its secretary general Ahmed Aboul Gheit said there was no agreement the proposal yet, adding that it may be discussed during the Arab League summit that takes place in Tunisia in March. Rami Khouri, a political analyst and fellow at Harvard Kennedy School told Al Jazeera that although normalisation with Syria was inevitable, the process of refugees' return will take time.

"There's no sign of a serious breakthrough in a political transition which would allow the safe return of refugees and the reconstruction [of devastated areas]. For this to happen, there needs to be a clear sign for a political reconciliation according to UN resolutions," said Khouri.

Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, agreed that normalisation will take time.

"The trend is still toward normalisation, but some key Arab countries, as well as some in the West, will want to use the 'carrot' of normalisation to get some concessions from the Assad regime," said Salem.

Earlier in the day, President Aoun had presented an initiative to establish an Arab bank for reconstruction and development, which would help rebuild countries torn by conflict. Discussion during the summit focussed on redevelopment plans in Somalia and Yemen. Continue...

James Koroma

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