Qatar's leader embraced Sudan's president in a red-carpet welcome Sunday as he arrived to attend an Arab Summit in his most brazen act of defiance against an international arrest warrant on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
For host Qatar — a key U.S. ally that is home to American warplanes and more than 5,000 U.S. troops — the Arab League meeting beginning Monday also showcases its desire to stake out a prominent role in regional affairs even at the risk of angering the West.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had promised to attend the 22-nation gathering after assurances from members they would not enforce the International Criminal Court's arrest order issued March 4. But his lavish arrival sent an apparent message that al-Bashir will have a center stage role at the two-day meeting.
Wearing a traditional Sudanese robe and white turban, a smiling al-Bashir was greeted at the airport with an embrace and kiss by Qatar's emir. They later had coffee with the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
Low-risk trip for al-Bashir
It was a low-risk trip for al-Bashir with high symbolic value for his Arab backers, who argue that carrying out the ICC's arrest would further destabilize Sudan as the Darfur conflict between the Arab-led government and ethnic African rebels enters its seventh year.
Only Jordan and two other tiny Arab League members, the Comoros and Djibouti, are party to the ICC charter, but can take no action on Qatari soil. Arab foreign ministers have endorsed a draft resolution for the summit rejecting the ICC's arrest warrant.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has said that al-Bashir should be arrested once he leaves Sudanese airspace, but it was unclear whether any military forces were monitoring his flight. The United States does not recognize the ICC's jurisdiction, citing fears that Americans would be unfairly prosecuted for political reasons. But President Barack Obama earlier this month denounced the "genocide" in Darfur.
The Sudanese government's battle against rebels in the western Darfur region has killed up to 300,000 people and driven 2.7 million from their homes since 2003, according to the United Nations.
"The president is performing his duties and is going to visit more countries either on bilateral bases or for regional meetings," said al-Bashir's foreign policy adviser, Mustafa Osman Ismail. The Sudanese leader also visited Eritrea, Egypt and Libya over the past week.
"What is required from all of us is to stand with our brothers in Sudan and its leadership in order to prevent dangers that affect our collective security," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said.
But the Arab ministers rejected an offer from Sudan to host an emergency Arab summit. Instead, Arab governments promised to increase diplomatic visits to Sudan.
Another chance for Qatar
The Doha gathering is another chance for Qatar to enhance its role as a regional broker — with the growing confidence to occasionally break ranks with traditional regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia and their Western allies.
In January, Qatar hosted a Gaza crisis conference that included two leaders sharply at odds with Washington: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The following month, Qatar mediated preliminary talks between Sudan's government and the most powerful Darfur rebel group.
But Qatar's rulers are careful not to step too far from the Western-leaning fold.
The nation serves as a strategic military hub for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Qatari officials who have also invested huge efforts to become an international sports venue — including bidding for the 2022 World Cup — worry that a maverick reputation could harm their chances.
Human Rights Watch issued an appeal for Arab leaders to press Sudan to allow the return of 13 foreign humanitarian aid groups expelled in retaliation for the warrant.
The Arab League also "should not reward Sudan's behavior by supporting a suspension of al-Bashir's case, which would only encourage further abuses," said Richard Dicker, director of the group's international justice program.