Last minute preparatory meetings were held between Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the European Union before the two-day summit is opened at 17:00 local time in Sharm el-Sheikh.
The gathering is seen by Europeans as part of a strategy of protecting their security, diplomatic and economic interests, according to EU sources who spoke to the AFP news agency.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will use the summit to press Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to encourage parties to the conflict in Yemen to end fighting.
The summit is subject to stringent security measures, given the location in the southern Sinai desert where Egyptian security forces are battling a nearby jihadist insurgency.
EU sources said the agenda includes migration, trade, investment and climate change, according to AFP. Fighting in Yemen, Libya and Syria are expected to be discussed on Monday.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also be part of the agenda, according to the Arab League hosts.
Migration, migration, migration
The importance of curbing illegal migration was cited by European leaders in connection with the summit during a meeting in Austria in September.
However, keeping tabs on migration is just one part of a bigger European strategy aiming to establish new alliances with the bloc’s southern neighbours.
According to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, the gathering of some 40 heads of state and government is much more than just migration.
EU sources told AFP that Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, met Egyptian strongman Sisi on Sunday to determine the agenda.
The majority of European heads of state and government, at least those who have signalled their attendance, have arrived at the Red Sea resort.
Assad and Bashir no-show
Most of the Arab League leaders are expected to attend, although Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will not be there, neither will Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who has been facing ongoing protests at home against his rule.
Disagreements on migration could risk blocking all other discussion during the summit, according to a UN official cited by AFP.
Aid-for-cooperation deals have been agreed between Libya’s UN-backed government and Turkey, helping to cut the flow of migrants since it peaked in 2015.
Nevertheless, a failure on the part of the EU to speak in one voice has limited wider cooperation with the Arab League, said the UN official.
Arabs are also divided over the Arab Spring uprisings over the last 10 years, said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Libya and Tunisia.
It is unlikely that the European bloc will strike a so-called “deal in the desert” with the UK over the deadlock ahead of Britain's expected exit from the EU on 29 March, according to an EU source.
Brussels remains united against May’s pleas to reopen the so-called divorce agreement in order to help push it through the Houses of Parliament.
Nevertheless, the Brexit question is expected to come up when May and Tusk hold talks in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, an ardent Brexiteer, said the summit is “an opportunity for her to talk to other EU leaders in order to try to make further progress”.
The first Arab-EU summit carries even more significance given the way in which the US has disengaged from the region while China and Russia make considerable diplomatic pushes, said EU sources speaking to AFP.
This “vacuum” cannot be “soaked” up by China and Russia, the source said.