THE summit meeting of the Arab League, held in Tunis last weekend, was strong on words but weak on action. This outcome was probably inevitable since eight heads of state failed to attend and four others left before the summit was over. Furhtermore, the meeting was held in the shadow of three debilitating factors: the lack of any progress on Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and the recent “unacceptable” actions of the Israeli army in Gaza; the uncertainty of the eventual outcome in Iraq; and the pressure being placed on Arab countries by the United States to commit themselves to a programme of political and social reforms. Washington's initiative for such reform in the Middle East has been much criticised as arrogant and insensitive but it will still come up for approval in a somewhat scaled-down form at the G8 meeting of industrialised nations next month. An invitation to President Mubarak of Egypt to attend the G8 meeting has apparently been turned down.

It is difficult to understand why the United States would want to push its reform agenda in the Middle East at a time that its reputation is so scarred and the possibility of such reform remains unproven in Iraq. In any case, the top-down approach implicit in the American proposals seldom works, especially when applied across a region rather than just a single country. So the Arab League summit probably felt quite safe in passing a number of resolutions making positive references to the kind of reforms favoured by the United States - in the knowledge that they were all heavily qualified by references to Arab “faith, values and traditions”. The final “Pledge of Accord and Solidarity” was necessary, but devoid of any real meaning.