Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, has arrived in Qatar on the eve of an Arab League summit, defying an arrest warrant issued against him for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
Al-Bashir was greeted on a red carpet at the international airport in Doha, the Qatari capital, by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, on Sunday before the pair had coffee with Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League.
Al-Bashir’s arrival had been the most eagerly anticipated of the delegates attending the two-day conference, after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest three weeks ago.
‘Act of Defiance’
Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst said: "He is taking an important standing – it is a real act of defiance.
"He [al Bashir] would not be able to come here if the Qatari foreign minister did not give him assurances [that he would not be arrested].
"To focus so much on a governing Arab head of state is something that’s not acceptable [to other Arab leaders].
"They want to put an end to Western interference in Arab affairs … and freeze the implementation of this arrest warrant."
The United Nations says at least 300,000 people have died in Darfur, many from disease and hunger, since fighting broke out in 2003 between black Africans and Arab militia alleged to have links to the Sudanese government.
Khartoum has dismissed the UN figures, saying about 10,000 people have died.
Sudan has already rejected the decision of the ICC in The Hague to allow the prosecution of al-Bashir on the war crimes charges and crimes against humanity.
Mustafa Osman Ismail, an adviser to al-Bashir, told Al Jazeera: "The Arab League now believe that this ICC is not for justice, it is just targeting Sudan.
"They are not doing anything in Palestine, they are not doing anything in Lebanon – so why Sudan?
"So, we are expecting the Arab League to reject [the arrest warrant] not to apply it and not to implement it.
"He [al-Bashir] is seeking a peaceful settlement for Darfur … there is no danger there now."
His visit to Qatar, which is not a signatory to the ICC and therefore not obliged to arrest him, marks the fourth occasion that he has left Sudan since the court’s indictment against him.
The Arab League meeting is likely to be dominated by how the Arab world should respond to western pressure to arrest the Sudanese president.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, will attend the opening of the meeting despite al-Bashir’s presence, a UN official said.
Arab League delegates are likely to be united in their condemnation of the ICC arrest warrant.
Bishara said: "The West generally tends to underestimate how much their interference in the Arab world tends to backfire to the advantage of leaders who then use it for populist nationalist sentiment in order to gather support for themselves.
"As a result, popular upheaval against al-Bashir is certainly not working."
Luis Moreno OCampo, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, told Al Jazeera: "In May, according to a report Sudan agreed with, one million people will have no food or water [in Sudan].
"I understand that the Arab League is like a family … but I hope they tell their brothers to stop [the crimes].
"I think it’s a huge responsibility for the Arab leaders to solve these problems [in Sudan] now."
Arab governments have also been struggling to respond to Iran’s growing political clout, which has greatly increased since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia say that Iran is key to the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – groups which refuse to renounce armed action in the historic Arab conflict with Israel.
"The Doha summit is still a battleground between the emerging de facto alliance between Qatar, Syria and Iran on one side, and the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians on the other," Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi opposition figure, said.
Iran and Syria back the populist view in the Arab world that the policies of Hezbollah and Hamas are legitimate responses to Israel, which rejects returning Arab lands it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Underlining the discord has been the decision by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, not to attend, instead sending a low-level delegation.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is sending his brother Moulay Rachid, who has no official title and it is also not clear whether the kings of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain will attend.
Foreign ministers from the countries adopted a draft final statement on Sunday that glossed over contentious issues, focusing on "general resolutions that reflect the Arab consensus".
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, expressed hope that any differences in Arab states’ viewpoints will lead to positive results.
"I can’t say that our relations are perfect, but there are roots for brotherly links," he said.
In a bid to ensure attendance by other Arab leaders, Qatar had said that neither Iran nor Hamas had been invited to attend.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of the Fatah group, had threatened to join Mubarak in boycotting the summit if Hamas was invited.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)