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

The End of The Arab League?

What the Organization Can Learn From the African Union

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.

Confronted with the Rwandan genocide in 1994, African leaders met in Libya in 1999 to revise the OAU charter. Three years later, the African Union was officially born. Although the OAU charter, like the Arab League charter, celebrated nonintervention and state sovereignty, the African Union parted from these principles. In 2004, the union established a 15-member Peace and Security Council for the “prevention, management and resolution of conflicts” in the region. It was even granted the power to pass binding decisions on member states in “grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” Although it is far from perfect, since its establishment, the African Union has played an active role in Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and, recently, Mali, where the African Union supported the International Support Mission in Mali and helped organize presidential elections.

Unlike the Arab League, the African Union has also frequently used sanctions to advance its objectives. The Arab League did impose sanctions on Syria in 2011 and has always called for a boycott of Israel, but, as of the end of 2013, the African Union has placed sanctions on ten member states (the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Togo). And when confronted with the 2013 coup in Cairo, the union suspended Egypt’s membership. That stands in stark contrast with the Arab League, which sent its secretary-general on an international tour to explain “the exceptional circumstances in Egypt” and called on the world to support the military in this “sensitive transitional phase.” Although the African Union’s decisions have been plenty controversial, and general African security remains fragile and contested, the body at least illustrates that collective action is possible, as are significant reforms to regional organizations.

For the Arab League, substantial reforms can come only through Arab member states. And as it stands, the will for such action seems limited. At the end of the two-day summit, member states promised “to work decisively to put a final end to divisions.” Tellingly, however, the final communiqué was read aloud not by a political heavyweight but by Khaled al-Jarallah, an undersecretary in the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry. Although short-term success thus seems unrealistic, there is at least some hope that the ongoing disaster in Syria will do for the Arab League what the Rwanda genocide did for the OAU. Otherwise, the day might come when all 22 seats at the league’s summits are left vacant -- and nobody cares.

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