Arab League left irrelevant as members prioritize national interests

Arab League left irrelevant as members prioritize national interests

Arab League left irrelevant as members prioritize national interests
An extraordinary session of Arab League FMs meet to discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories, Cairo, Egypt, Apr. 21, 2019. (AP Photo)
Short Url

Not since the Arab League’s 23rd summit, held in Baghdad in March 2012, has one of its gatherings garnered as much controversy as the 2022 summit slated to take place in March in Algeria. Back in 2012, the Arab world had gone through seismic changes, with the reverberations of the so-called Arab Spring still resonating. One can safely say that the geopolitical trajectory of the region has continued to slide ever since, with the Arab world now having the lion’s share of global political and socioeconomic crises, even if one discounts Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, all of which have some direct or indirect connection to the region’s upheavals.
For now, it looks like the Algeria summit will not be held in March. There are so many regional hotspots and so much discord that the mission of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to reach a minimum level of consensus among leaders is an impossible one. Discord among Arab countries is now the norm. The Arab world — a term that has become archaic and more of a euphemism — has never been so divided and polarized. Algeria itself has chronic problems with neighboring Morocco and uneasy relations with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In a bid to improve the chances of convening the summit, Tebboune made a surprise visit to Cairo last week to seek President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s help in convincing Arab leaders to show up, at least for a photo op.
The Arab League is a ghost of what it used to be back in the 1960s and 1970s. The breakup began when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Israel in 1977. Years later, the Arab League moved back from Tunis to Cairo — signaling business as usual for the Arab countries. But the revived Arab League had become irrelevant for one main reason: For decades, the Palestine issue was the keystone that held the coalition together. Once the Palestinian leadership decided to hold secret negotiations, first with the Americans and later with the Israelis, the consensus began to crumble.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and America’s occupation of Iraq more than a decade later also wounded the Arab League — some would say fatally. The tradition of Arab leaders meeting under one ceiling for less than a day has become an empty ritual. Resolutions are adopted, pledges reembraced and fancy preambles written carefully, but in reality member states have gotten weary.
The Arab world today is nothing like that of the pre-Arab Spring era. Since 2011, the region has gone through tumultuous phases, with rulers overthrown, countries partitioned or occupied, nonstate actors taking center stage, and old alliances weakening. In fact, as a group of like-minded countries, the Arab world has become immaterial. The Palestinian issue is no longer central or even qualifies as common ground anymore. Israel is now welcomed as an ally by some Arab states, where a shared and immediate threat presents itself in the form of Iran.
Arab states cannot agree on key issues like the return of Syria to the Arab League or which side to back in divided Libya or in the now-militarily ruled Sudan. They diverged on Tunisia’s crisis and, more recently, on Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah dictates local politics and smears Arab countries.

The Arab world — a term that has become archaic and more of a euphemism — has never been so divided and polarized.

Osama Al-Sharif

The Houthis in Yemen have crossed red lines by targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE while refusing any political settlement. Daesh is making a comeback in western Iraq and northeastern Syria. COVID-19 is out of control in most Arab countries. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, there are key non-Arab players that now have a say in the region’s future. Russia has permanent military bases in Syria, while Turkey is entrenched in northern Syria and its influence extends to Libya. Iran continues to meddle in Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Yemeni affairs.
While the Arab League is viewed as a symbol for millions of Arabs, it is sad that this symbol is in fact one of historical failures. At the popular level, there is a romantic nostalgia for Arab oneness, but this is now marred by notoriously dysfunctional Arab League institutions. On the ground, Arab leaders feel obliged to join the annual, single-day ritual. In reality, each Arab country is now fighting for its own national interests.
In the late 1980s, two other Arab coalitions tried to emerge alongside the Gulf Cooperation Council: The short-lived Arab Cooperation Council, comprising Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen, and the aborted Maghreb Union, which joined Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Arab attempts at coming together have a dismal track record. But some countries seem to be trying again, such as with the “New Levant” promoted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, along with Jordan and Egypt. Others appear to have opted for non-Arab regional alliances, with Israel as the key fulcrum. With the US pivoting to the east, this approach seems to be the new norm, leaving the Arab League, 77 years after its founding, as an abandoned temple.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view