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 was just another reminder of the league’s inability to stay relevant in the nearly 70 years since its founding.
Only three years ago, the prospects for the 22-state regional block seemed much brighter. As old dictatorships crumbled, the league had unexpectedly broken with its longtime principal of noninterference: In 2011, the organization supported a no-fly zone over Libya and suspended Libya’s membership. The same year, it called for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then suspended Syria’s membership. In parallel, it brokered an ill-fated peace agreement with the Assad regime and sent observers to monitor the implementation. Although these initiatives were controversial -- a Sudanese general notorious for his own authoritarian past headed the observer mission -- they did breathe some new life into the long-dormant institution.
Certainly, a real comeback would have been welcome. The Arab League’s mandate -- to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty” -- should, in theory, position it to deal with the region’s challenges. And there are many. But even in the heady days of 2011, the league never really lived up to its ambitions. Its few breakthroughs, including a fragile consensus over the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2002, have been the exception rather than the rule.
In 2009, Marco Pinfari, who is now an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, analyzed Arab League mediation attempts in the Middle East since 1945. His findings are sobering. Although the Arab League mediated 12 out of 20 minor regional conflicts in that time frame, it was involved in only seven of 36 major interstate wars. Also, the league intervened in only five of 22 major civil wars. Most notably, the organization failed to come up with a unified response to the 1990 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the ensuing Gulf War, and the 2003 Iraq War. More recently, the league voted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, but its attempts to broker a cease-fire in Syria failed to have any impact. In short, regular summits have mostly made headlines not because they led to collective action but because they led to collective inaction.
In many ways, this political failure is the consequence of the organization’s shaky foundations. The league was established in 1945 to embody the spirit of pan-Arabism. However, the organizational setup required the league to operate at the mercy of states that rejected pan-Arabism in all but rhetoric. This is most clearly illustrated by the league’s mandate, which was restricted to safeguarding independence and sovereignty, and its majority decisions were made binding only for those states that accepted them.
That is insufficient. For the league to play a constructive role in regional politics, it needs to transform from an ineffective forum for debate into a venue for genuine decision-making. The most important step would be a change in the organization’s charter to allow for binding and enforceable resolutions, a point that the league’s secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, repeatedly made in his address to the summit last week. He stressed that the founding charter was simply “inadequate” for the tasks at hand. Although the league’s secretariat seems to agree, its hands remain bound.
Here, the Arab League should take a page from the African Union. Certainly, the African Union has its shortcomings: It suffers from donor dependency and competes with subregional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the Southern African Development Community. Yet, in the last decade, the union has transformed from its notorious past as “the dictators’ club” -- as many called its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) -- into a key player in contemporary African politics.