Crown Prince Abdullah addressed the conference on 27 March, putting forward his peace proposals in detail and seeking the support of the Arab League to adopt the plan as a broad-based Arab peace initiative. ‘I propose that the Arab League present a collective programme to the [UN] Security Council based on normal relationships and security to Israel and parallel with an independent Palestinian country with its capital Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian people to come back to their homeland,’ he said. ‘Having real peace is the only way to normalise relationships between all the people and the only thing that could replace all the destruction.’

Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb, speaking on behalf of the absent King Abdullah, opened the conference as the outgoing chair of the summit. He offered Jordan’s unreserved support for Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan, saying: ‘We back and support this initiative. which constitutes a cornerstone for a comprehensive peace and sends a clear message to the whole world that the Arabs want peace.’

Absentees from the Gulf included Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the UAE’s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, as well as King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein does not travel outside Iraq and Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi had earlier signalled his decision not to attend the conference.

The absence of Arafat was the most serious blow to the summit’s credibility. The stringent conditions laid out by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for allowing Arafat to both attend the summit and return drew a welter of criticism. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher demanded that Arafat be granted a ’round trip’ to the summit, while EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: ‘It will be much better if he is allowed to come, if he is allowed to express himself.’

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo explained Arafat’s decision. ‘President Arafat has consulted with his leadership and has studied the issue carefully,’ he said. ‘He has decided not to allow Israel to pressure the Palestinian negotiators into submitting to Israeli conditions, and so he has decided not to go to the summit.’ A conference link was set up to allow Arafat to participate from his Ramallah headquarters. He was due to address the summit on 27 March, and was expected to offer support for Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri insisted the peace initiative would not be derailed by the absence of Arafat. ‘Surely if he comes it will be better, but I don’t think it will make any decisions any different,’ he said. Similarly, the last-minute decisions of Mubarak and King Abdullah not to attend do not necessarily spell trouble for the peace plan. Both countries are already at peace with Israel, as is Mauritania, another absentee. The fact that the plan is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, and was expected to win support from Syria, neither of which are at peace with Israel, will be seen as the critical point in moving the initiative forward.

The summit was expected on 28 March to turn its attention to the question of US military action against Iraq. ‘In this summit, the general trend is to have a resolution rejecting any threats of aggression against any Arab country, especially Iraq,’ said Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Naji Sabri in late March. Most Arab countries had already expressed concern over military action during US vice-president Dick Cheney’s tour of the region in mid March. However, tension still runs high between Iraq and its neighbours. Kuwait has signalled its determination to win Iraqi guarantees of Kuwaiti sovereignty and an admission that its 1990 invasion of the Gulf state was wrong.