Beirut: The fourth annual Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, held in the Lebanese capital Beirut, was marred by the glaring absence of most Arab heads of state.
The refugee issue had been high on the summit’s agenda at the request of Lebanon, which has been inundated with refugees since the start of the Syrian war 2011.
The Arab leaders called on the international community to “redouble collective efforts” to help refugees return and to “shoulder its responsiblities” to the region.
They called on world powers to “support Arab countries hosting Syrian refugees and set up development projects that could reduce the economic and social impact”.
There are currently 5.6 million Syrian refugees living in the region, including around one million born into displacement, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the civil war raging across the border.
Most live in extreme poverty, according to aid agencies, and have placed an extra burden on Lebanon’s fragile economy.
Despite some returns to slivers of Syria, the United Nations says the country as a whole remains unsafe for civilians to return to.
– ‘Summit without leaders’ –
In his opening speech, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun called on world powers “to make all efforts possible and provide suitable conditions for a safe return of displaced Syrians… without linking that to a political solution”.
He also proposed the creation of an Arab bank to finance “reconstruction and development” in Arab countries devastated by conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.
Aoun also expressed his “regret” that most Arab heads of state had failed to attended the summit hosted by Lebanon and co-organised with the Arab League.
Only Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz were present on Sunday for the kick off of the meeting, focused economic development in the region.
Aoun said he had hoped the summit would be a chance “to bring together all the Arabs and that there would be no empty seats… but the obstacles were unfortunately stronger”.
Libya boycotted the summit after supporters of a Lebanese Shiite movement tore its flag down and burned it ahead of the conference.
Aoun may also have been referring to divisions in the run-up to the summit over whether Syria would be allowed to attend.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011 as the death toll mounted.
But nearly eight years into the Syrian war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, efforts to bring the government of President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab fold appear underway.
With backing from Russia and Iran, Assad’s government has expelled rebels and jihadists from large parts of Syria, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.
On Friday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil urged the Cairo-based Arab League to readmit Syria.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Thursday said Syria’s return to the body was awaiting “Arab consensus”.
In December, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir made the first visit by any Arab leader to the Syrian capital since 2011, and the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus after closing it in 2012.