The Arab League and the need for renewal

Friday 18/03/2016
Arab foreign ministers attending
emergency session in Cairo

The Arab League found itself in a strange situation after its leader, Secretary-Gen­eral Nabil Elaraby, announced he would not seek to renew his term in office, which ends in July.

His replacement was quickly chosen, another Egyptian former foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul- Gheit. But it would be wrong to say that Aboul-Gheit’s nomination resolves the major problems facing the Arab League.

Has the position of Arab League secretary-general become nothing more than a place to park former Egyptian foreign ministers?

There is an Arab crisis. The Arab League is acting as if nothing is wrong and everything is normal. But really it should be asking: Is the Arab League capable of renewing itself and playing an effective role?

If the Arab League wants to endure for much longer, it must seriously investigate how to renew itself and breathe new life into its operations, at a time when everything in the Arab world has changed, when major regional players are on the wane, and even the notion of what it is to be “Arab” is in flux.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Bassil Gebran’s move to defy Arab consensus on condemning the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Iran and act as a de facto envoy from Tehran sums up the dire straits that the Arab League finds itself in. It also shows the extent to which Lebanon is no longer the state that it once was.

This does not mean that Iran does not deserve to be heard. But it is out of the question for Lebanon to become an Iranian colony. It would have been better for an Iranian official to be invited to present Tehran’s point of view at an Arab League meeting.

The fact that an Arab country can speak in the voice of Iran at an Arab League meeting exemplifies the changes that the region has witnessed since 2003 and the George W. Bush administration’s ill-advised war in Iraq, which opened the door for Iran.

During the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in 2003, held on the eve of the Iraq war, most of the discussions revolved around ways that the conflict could be avoided, even if delegates privately agreed that there was no way out.

The meeting that year was consumed by bickering, with ultimately no Arab state, or indeed all Arab states working together through the conduit of the Arab League, able to do anything to impact the coming war.

Today, Iraq is another country that is no longer part of the Arab flock in the same way that it was in the past.

Over the past decade or more, the Arab League has failed on every level. It failed in Iraq. It failed in Syria and Yemen. The Arab League has been singularly unable to find a solution to any recent regional crisis, and is not even a factor in the Syrian situation.

The Arab League has also completely failed to help restore Palestinian national unity and accept the political reality today. So, given all these failures, does this represent the end of the Arab League?

It is too early to announce the death of the Arab League, but that does not mean we should not be looking for a new framework, including new decision-making and voting procedures that allow for stronger positions and do away with weak compromises.

What worked in 1945 may no longer be relevant in 2016. The Middle East has changed. The entire world has changed. Sectarianism is on the rise, a self-proclaimed terrorist caliphate has been established in the heart of the region, while Iranian expansionism continues to threaten the Arab Gulf.

This organisation, the only one to bring Arabs together, must deal in realities. In the end, does the Arab League want to be at the heart of events or on the sidelines? Do Arab states or at least those that remain want to have a role in the region or want to leave decision-making for outside actors?

So, how can we renew the Arab League? Perhaps inspiration should be taken from the Gulf Cooperation Council, established in 1981, which has been able to play a far more effective role in Arab Gulf affairs.

As for whether this will actually happen, only time will tell.