Current Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi
Current Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-ArabiReuters

Qatar has delayed the appointment of a veteran Egyptian diplomat as the next head of the Arab League over his "hostile positions" towards the Gulf state, diplomats said on Thursday.

Egypt was expecting Ahmed Abul Gheit, the last foreign minister to serve under ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to be chosen unanimously by the 21-member pan-Arab body.

But in a surprise setback to his candidacy, Qatar expressed reservations due to Abul Gheit's "hostile positions," an Arab diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Relations between Doha and Cairo have soured since the army's ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Cairo blames Doha for supporting Morsi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement, the target of a police crackdown since the Islamist's ouster. Doha has regularly denounced the crackdown that left hundreds dead and thousands in jail.

Several diplomats told AFP that Doha accused Abul Gheit of pushing Egypt to boycott a Qatari-proposed Arab summit in 2009 to discuss Israel's defensive actions in Operation Cast Lead after being attacked by Hamas in Gaza.

Unlike the charismatic ex-chief of the Arab League, Egyptian Amr Moussa, who was known for his hostile positions on Israel, Abul Gheit has often faced criticism for adopting a relatively softer approach towards the Jewish state.

In 2008, he made the surprising step of acknowledging that Hamas was responsible for the Israeli operation given its attacks on Israel.

Qatar has been a key backer of Hamas, which is a Gazan offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that Egypt has been cracking down on.

Egypt proposed Abul Gheit, 73, for the post after fellow Egyptian Nabil al-Arabi declined a second five-year term as secretary general. His present term ends in July.

Traditionally, the secretary general of the Arab League has held the post for two terms, and Cairo has always insisted that it be held by an Egyptian diplomat.

Arab diplomats told AFP that in the absence of a unanimous choice, Egypt is asking for a vote on Abul Gheit's candidacy. To be appointed, two-thirds of League members have to vote in his favor.

"Egypt will not present another candidate...there will be a decision today" on the next secretary general, Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Abuzeid told reporters.

Arab conflict

Differences over Abul Gheit reflect the divisions within the pan-Arab body.

The next secretary general will take office at a time when the Arab League is facing multiple wars in the region, a rising threat from jihadists, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the top of the list is the war in Syria that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011.

The more than five-year-old conflict has seen regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran backing opposite sides.

While Shi'ite Iran has sent thousands of "military advisers" into Syria in support of the Damascus regime, Saudi Arabia supports Sunni rebels fighting Assad's forces.

A similar power play is evident in Yemen, where Iran-backed Shi'ite rebels are fighting a Saudi-led military campaign. The United Nations says that more than 6,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi campaign commenced against the rebels a year ago.

The rise of the jihadist Islamic State (ISIS) group, which has swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria under its control and is rapidly expanding its footholds in Libya, has emerged as the biggest threat to the region's stability.

To combat ISIS, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proposed setting up a joint Arab military force, but the plan faced resistance from within the League after it was initially adopted.

If chosen, Abul Gheit will be the eighth secretary general of the League since it was founded in 1945.

AFP contributed to this report.