The End of The Arab League?

What the Organization Can Learn From the African Union

The opening of the 25th Arab League Summit in Bayan Palace, Kuwait, March 25, 2014. Stephanie McGehee / Courtesy Reuters

Last Wednesday, the Arab League concluded its 25th annual summit. Despite Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad’s pleas in his opening remarks for participating nations to “cast aside differences,” a reference to rising tensions in the region in recent years, the two-day session ended in continued deadlock. Participants jointly rejected the notion of recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state” but remained at odds over almost everything else.

Expectations for the Arab League (which had never been high) were at an all-time low just before this summit. Regional polarization in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has pitted supporters of the uprisings, such as Tunisia, against defenders of the status quo, such as Saudi Arabia and (increasingly) Egypt, is part of the problem. Another part is the divide over the Muslim Brotherhood: Saudi Arabia and Egypt recently labeled the movement a “terrorist organization,” but Qatar, the Brotherhood’s regional sponsor, continues to support it, and political parties affiliated with the group still hold power or have significant political influence in Tunisia, Morocco, and the Gaza Strip. Syria is another highly divisive issue, with different member states effectively supporting different sides in the civil war. And the body remains divided between those who fear Iran and those with more benign views of it, namely, Lebanon and Iraq.

Thanks to these disagreements, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates refused even to attend the summit. Theirs, however, were not the only seats that remained empty. Algeria and Iraq insisted that the Syrian opposition not be allowed to represent Damascus officially (although Ahmad al-Jarba, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, was invited to address the gathering). And the countries that did attend might as well not have: The summit mainly served as an opportunity for speakers to exchange thinly veiled criticisms and accusations of regional destabilization. Even though officials inevitably hailed the “successful summit” and its “tangible results,” their rhetoric could not conceal the fact that the meeting

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