Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, was given a red carpet welcome as he arrived in Qatar on Sunday, defying an international arrest warrant to attend an Arab League summit.
A smiling Mr Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, was greeted at Doha airport by the emir of Qatar, who warmly embraced the Sudanese leader with a kiss on each cheek in a traditional Arab greeting.
Qatar, which is a US ally and home to an American airbase, had earlier said it had come under pressure not to host the Sudanese leader, but extended its invitation to Mr Bashir.
The arrest warrant is high on the agenda of Monday’s summit, with the league expected to back Sudan and reject the warrant, which was issued after an investigation into the mass killings in war-torn Darfur.
“We respect international law and we respect the attendance of President Bashir and welcome him,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister, said last week.
A Sudanese source said many of Mr Bashir’s advisers had told him not to go because of the possibility of him being “grounded somewhere,” expressing concerns that his aircraft might be intercepted.
Since the ICC issued the arrest warrant, Mr Bashir has travelled to Eritrea, Egypt and Libya, which all neighbour Sudan, but the trip to Doha is the boldest and most high profile.
Arab leaders have already roundly condemned the warrant, with Middle East governments and groups that are normally at odds sending messages of support to Khartoum, including Saudi Arabia, its main regional rival, Iran, and militant groups Hizbollah and Hamas.
Officials say the warrant sets a dangerous precedent, impinges on the sovereignty of a country and could destabilise Sudan and neighbouring countries. There is also a sense that the warrant smacks of perceived Western double standards, with many in the Muslim world arguing that Israelis should be prosecuted for crimes against Palestinians – particularly after Israel’s attack on Gaza this year – and Americans for abuses in Iraq.
However, most Arab officials have been careful with their language, trying to balance support for Sudan without saying Mr Bashir is innocent or being seen to deflect from the crisis in Darfur.
They insist their main concern is the stability of Sudan and seeking a resolution to the six-year war in Darfur, arguing that the warrant jeopardises peace efforts and could threaten a separate deal that ended decades of war in southern Sudan.
“I don’t think we should transform a situation in Sudan, which is very complicated, into a focus on whether he participates in a summit or not,” said Hesham Youssef, a senior official at the Arab League. “The focus of the league is to see how we can ensure the security and stability of Sudan, this is our objective.”
The Arab League, however, is often criticised for being little more than a talking shop that is plagued by divisions among its member states. It has allied itself to the African Union in its opposition to the warrant and the two have been lobbying the UN Security Council for a year-long deferral of the arrest warrant – the only potentially mitigating measure provided for by international law.
Yet while Sudan can count on Arab support at the summit, it has a history of mixed relations with its neighbours.
During the 1990s, Sudanese relations with Gulf countries were severely strained after it supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and hosted numerous extremists, including Osama bin Laden. It was also suspected of involvement of the 1995 assassination attempt of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.
Relations have since improved and a number of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have looked to Sudan as they plan to develop overseas agricultural projects to ensure food security for their import-dependent nations.
Only three Arab League states – Jordan, Djibouti and Comoros – are members of the ICC.