The Arab League in the new millennium
The Third Arab Economic and Social Development Summit that concluded last week in Riyadh called for the re-examination of the Arab League’s objective and what it has achieved after 68 years of its establishment. As stated in the League’s Charter, its primary objective is to achieve an Arab homeland. In other words, the ultimate goal is to integrate all existing Arab states into one political and geographical entity.
This noble aim cannot be surpassed by any other unifying political ideology known to humankind as it seeks to incite and rally the support of the Arab masses and governments alike.
The current Arab states were part of an Islamic political union for a long time from the era of the Caliphates to the era of the Ottomans. So, there is a historical precedent to build on as the idea is not alien to the populations’ consciousness.
Israel’s occupation of Palestine was affront equally to Arab governments and general masses, who are collectively larger in area and number than their adversary. For several decades, the total efforts of Arab governments were put in to repel this negative sentiment by focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Consequently, the Arab League has organized 38 summits of Arab leaders, almost all were devoted to tackle this political issue, while the economic and social development of the Arab world was neglected.
Nonetheless, neither the political unity was accomplished nor the Palestinian issue was resolved.
To achieve a semi-political unity, the Arab League should recognize that all existing Arab countries fall under a general Arab culture — be it an Islamic culture — that shares common religion, language, history and geographical space. At the same time, the population of each political unit belongs to a specific sub-culture and geography that make them particularly distinct, with respect to identity and political loyalty. This identity often appears in inter-Arab political conflicts and sports brawls.
Western colonizing political powers and historians have recognized the multiple identities of the Arab world and carved up the Arab world accordingly into various political units/states without much resistance. The same process is continuing along these lines up to date.
Sound political articulation always considers the importance of history and geography in international relations. Certainly, the Arab world shares these elements in addition to some primary components of the culture (religion, language, customs and tradition, etc). Ignoring those sub-cultures that make up the character and identity of individuals belonging to different political units only confuses the work of the Arab League in achieving its objectives. Therefore, accomplishing a political unity — at least presently — is neither feasible nor doable. Hence, to continue to focus on this ultimate goal can be misleading, if not deceiving, the Arab populations by falsely raising their hopes and aspirations.
The Arab League should focus on three primary objectives: Segmental and incremental political unity; economic unity; and science and technology unity. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is working toward a political and economic unity and has achieved a notable progress, largely in the economic development that is unmatched by most Arab countries.
Making farther steps have become a matter of need rather than dealing with it as a good idea that should be pursued. History has proven that powerful states are tempted to influence and sometimes devour neighboring small, rich political units.
Maintaining the political status quo in every member state requires creative adjustments as in the case of the United Arab Emirates that enjoys remarkable progress.
Another minor political organization is the Arab Maghreb Union, comprising Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. This union should be resurrected to serve the interests of its member states and fulfill the economic and social aspirations of its populations. The council and the union as well as formation of similar political groups should be encouraged by the Arab League and steps toward the ultimate goal of Arab political unity also need to be taken.
Although the economic unity is one of the objectives of the Arab League, little efforts have been directed toward achieving this task, as the league is consumed and overwhelmed by political issues, especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Articles 2 and 4 of its charter mandated the establishment of an economic unity. The early steps to address the economic development were taken in 1950 under the treaty of the Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, which was initiated as a result of the establishment of Israel in 1948, and for political reasons, Egypt pushed for this treaty.
However, the first meeting took place in 1953.
The Economic Council was established in June 1957 and became operational on May 30, 1964, and was later renamed as the Economic and Social Council in 1981. After more than a decade, this council was able to strike an agreement to pursue the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), which eventually would lead to the establishment of an Arab common market. The GAFTA agreement was made in February 1997.
Eighteen member states joined the agreement, which ought to be enforced in 2005.
Obviously, until 2009, the Arab League’s achievements were minimal. The Economic and Social Council that is caught in the Arab League’s complicated bureaucracy ought to be activated by creating a separate administrative council dedicated to achieve its goals away from dragging unresolved political issues, which consumed and overwhelmed the Arab League. This council should be located in one of the GCC countries, preferably Saudi Arabia for obvious reasons, and become responsible for the economic and social development of the Arab world. In 2009, the first Economic and Social Development Summit took place in Kuwait and proposed an Arab Action Plan for Science and Technology. Education and scientific research are crucial to the development of any country. Because scientific research requires advanced infrastructure and huge financial resources, many GCC states, such as UAE and Qatar, have invested in such structures and established several advanced research institutions, which make them suitable to host another council for science and technology devoted solely for scientific research.
Hosting the Arab League or one of its vital institutions by a member state provides political influence to a country, and also diplomatic prestige and privileges to the staff, which may produce some kind of resistance. However, Arab governments that are keen about Arab progress will make way to distribute the burden of the responsibilities of the Arab League among member states to achieve the aspirations of the Arab masses.