Most Arabs will be the first to admit that the Arab League, the 68-year-old organization, is a dysfunctional body that has manifested Arab divisions and deep differences rather than realizing its stated goal which is, according to its charter, to “draw closer the relations between member states and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.”
Throughout its long and checkered history, the Arab League had underlined what was wrong with the Arab political order; the failure to streamline individual and ideological differences between its members in favor of adopting a coherent working plan to protect Arab interests and repulse external threats. Today it underscores the deep political, social and economic distinctions among its 22 member states.
A by-product of the World War II it had quickly fallen to the polarizations of the Cold War. The Arab League failed in its first and biggest test to date; to resolve the Palestine issue. And since its inception in March 1945 — making it slightly older than the UN — attempts to reform it or amend its charter were met with resistance and lack of political will. Most of the time the pan-Arab body paid a heavy price as a result of internal competition for leadership between influential countries like Egypt, especially during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was manipulated at times by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, during his long war with Iran in the 1980s, by Syria, under President Hafez Assad in the aftermath of his military intervention in Lebanon and, most recently, by the rich oil Gulf countries, like Qatar, whose role and influence in the region became more prominent in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Historically it was Egypt that had the biggest influence on the Arab League.
But it had lost control over it when President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David treaty with Israel in 1979. As a result Egypt’s membership in the Arab League was suspended and its headquarters was relocated from Cairo to Tunisia. A decade later the Arab League was used to ostracize Iraq for its 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait and was accused of paving the way for an international coalition to intervene in the Gulf region.
The Arab League was never a harmonious body. It comprises poor and super rich nations, revolutionary republics and monarchies, pro-West and anti-West states. It was born out of necessity, mainly to stand up to Zionist schemes in British mandate Palestine, and to support Arab countries fighting for independence.
On the Palestine issue its record has been dismal; the cause was a victim of fractious axes and fronts. But its position has evolved over the years. Its members waged war against Israel in 1948 war and lost it. After the defeat in the 1967 war, the Arab League convened in Khartoum and reiterated its rejection of the existence of Israel.
But 35 years later Arab states adopted the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut offering to make historic peace with Israel. The evolution of the political stand on the Palestinian issue has been remarkable during the past six decades, but the Arab League never made an international impression. Certainly the Israelis never took it seriously.
Critics of the Arab League, and they are many, have always pointed to disparities between member states, citing political impotence. Over the years the Arab League gave birth to a number of pan-Arab organizations such as the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) and the Economic and Social Council of the Arab League’s Council of Arab Economic Unity (CAEU). It has passed historic documents such as the Joint Arab Economic Action Charter, which presents a framework for economic cooperation among member states.
But the activities of such organizations have always been undercut by shortage of money or lack of political will. In the end member states with common visions and interests started lumping together; notably the Gulf states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which survives until today.
Attempts to bring Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen together, under the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), and the Maghreb countries in a similar gathering were met with failure. The Arab League survived but only as a token organization. Most of its resolutions were never implemented. From a regional and international perspective, the Arab body was inconsequential.
Two years ago the region witnessed an unexpected phenomenon: The Arab Spring. Popular uprisings have toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A bloody civil war continues to rage in Syria. The winds of change blew in the direction of Jordan, Morocco and Oman as well. Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, played a pivotal role in the Libyan and Egyptian uprisings. Along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar is among the biggest supporters of the Syrian opposition.
Both countries are wary of an Iran-led Shiite expansion that stretches from Tehran, through Baghdad, and into Damascus and Beirut. Along with other Gulf countries they are worried about Iran’s regional influence and threats, especially in the Gulf region. As a result the Arab Spring began to change the utility of the Arab League. For the first time in decades, the Arab League is now controlled by oil-rich Gulf countries. Qatar, which hosted the 24th session of the Arab summit last week, will preside over the organization for one year. It has already managed to award Syria’s Arab League seat to a coalition of Syrian opposition. Doha is among the top suppliers of weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In the Doha summit the Qatari emir pushed to reform the Arab League and amend its charter.
In spite of skepticism by Arab pundits, there are signs that a new, albeit a controversial, phase in the life of the Arab League is about to begin. It might not fulfill the idealistic goal of the organization — the Arab League is neither the EU nor BRICS — but there are attempts to make it matter in regional and world politics. This will materialize on at least one crucial issue; the Syrian crisis.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman