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Qatar’s emir in Beirut for Arab economic summit

Joseph Eid / AFP | The Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani participates in a regional economic summit in the Lebanese capital Beirut, on Januray 20, 2019.

Qatar’s ruler arrived at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit as the regional bloc debates Syria’s readmission. Lebanese President Michel Aoun also urged world powers to step up efforts to help Syrian refugees return home.

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Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has arrived in Beirut to attend an Arab economic summit marred by divisions over readmitting Syria into the Arab League.

Qatar’s government has been one of the main backers of Syrian insurgents who have tried, since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

So thevisit by its main representative is widely seen as a first step to restoring relations with Syria.

Last month, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus, a move seen as a strategic and diplomatic shift in the region.

On Friday, Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil called for the Arab League to readmit Syria, more than seven years after it suspended Damascus’ membership.

“Syria is the most notable absentee at our conference, and we feel the weight of its absence,” Bassil said.

“Syria should be among us... without us having to wait for a permission for it to return,” he added at a meeting with other ministers from Arab League nations.

Syrian refugees still a concern

On Sunday, at the opening of the summit, Lebanese President Michel Aoun urged world powers to "make all efforts" for Syrian refugees to return home regardless of any political solution to the war there.

Aoun told the summit that Lebanon would suggest solutions for safe refugee returns in the meeting's final statement.

The AESD is being held in Lebanon for the first time, but Syria was not invited despite demands by allies of Damascus in Lebanon.

The Arab League suspended Syria in November 2011, as the death toll rose in the regime’s brutal repression of anti-government protests.

During the last year, Assad’s forces have gained the military upper hand against rebels and jihadists, and efforts to bring his government back into the Arab fold appear underway.

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.

>> Read more: Thaw in relations between Arab leaders and Syria’s Assad

On Thursday, the head of the Arab League, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said member states have not reached a consensus on Syria’s return to the 22-member bloc.

“When there is an Arab consensus, and when we are sure there is no objection from one side or the other, it will be as simple as putting it on the agenda of a meeting” of Arab foreign ministers, he said.

Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started with anti-government protests.

Lebanon calls for Arab bank to finance reconstruction

Aoun, a political ally of the Hezbollah, proposed the creation of an Arab bank to finance reconstruction in Arab countries devastated by conflicts, such as Syria and Yemen.

According to the Lebanese head of state, the "establishment of an Arab bank for reconstruction and development" of Arab countries devastated by conflict would also ease the return of civilians to their home country and the refugee crisis that many neighbouring countries face.

The United Nations estimated that the war in Syria caused around €350 billion worth of damage.

'Summit without heads of state'

Seven Arab leaders had been expected at Sunday’s summit but only Sheikh Tamim and the president of Mauritania came to Beirut.

The other leaders' absence appeared to be a snub to Lebanon, where pro-Syrian groups led by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah had insisted that Assad should be invited.

Lebanese newspapers ran despairing headlines on Friday.

“The Beirut shock... a summit without heads of state,” the country’s oldest Arabic-language newspaper An-Nahar said.

The conference will discuss the digital economy, as well as a long-suggested project for an Arab free trade zone.

Lebanon also plans to put forward an initiative calling on countries in the region to help spread the burden of the 1.5 million refugees living on its soil.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS, and AP)

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