The Arab League still has a role to play

Friday 04/03/2016

The Arab League was established in 1945 as a consortium of newly founded independent Arabic-speaking states. It aimed to “draw closer the relations between member states and coordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries”.

In many ways, the league encompassed post-colonial nationalist aspirations for greater Arab unity and stronger economic and cultural associations. In the 1950s and 1960s, pan-Arabism consolidated the role and mission of the Arab League, leading to the formation of various economic, defence and educational cooperation councils.

The league, however, has come to face insurmountable political challenges that undermined its ability to maintain a coherent and unifying position. The interests of member states have often run in contradiction to that of the league as a whole. Infamously, Egypt’s decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1978 led to its expulsion from the league. Libya and Syria’s repressive campaigns against dissidents in 2011 culminated in their suspension. A unified response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 resulted in divisions that exposed the league’s limitations for collective action.

The league’s inaction towards regional threats has eroded its credibility and convinced Morocco to decline to host the Arab League summit, which had been scheduled for March. Morocco’s foreign minister attributed the kingdom’s decision to the league’s “lack of important decisions and concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states” and considered that “this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity”.

In the post-“Arab spring” era, the aggravation and inflaming of sectarian and tribal politics in an environment defined by the growing meddling in Arab affairs by Iran, Turkey, Russia, among others, has posed an unprecedented existential threat to the very essence of Arabism and with it the principle foundations of the Arab League. By 2015, hardly any member state has proven itself immune to the intimidation of irredentist movements claiming to reverse historic, sectarian or ethnic

Most members are facing similar breaches in sovereignty, reflected in domestic divisions evident in Sunni-Shia feuds throughout Levantine and Gulf states. The existence of rising jihadi Salafist transnational armed movements fighting “moderate” regimes, the contribution of paradigms focused on Arab versus non-Arab ethnic to domestic rifts in heterogeneous states marked by Arab-Kurdish disputes in Iraq and Syria, and rising Arab-Amazigh polarisation in many North African states have all threatened the pre-“Arab spring” status quo. Lately, the massing of foreign fighters and troops along the borders and in the skies above Syria and Iraq has added to the complexities of regional destiny.

The political collapses of Arab states or their partitions are not the only problem challenging Arab unity. Equally worrisome is the declining relevancy of cultural bonds and the undermining of the centrality of the Arabic language. A 2015 Arab Youth Survey, conducted by Penn Schoen Berland, indicated that of the 3,500 people aged 18 to 24 polled, two-thirds said they were concerned about the declining use of Arabic while more than one-third said they used English more than Arabic on a daily basis.

There is an increasing tendency among Arab Shias to learn Persian while Iran has simultaneously begun hosting an expanding number of Arab university students with aims to strengthen cultural and religious ties. Turkey has also initiated educational, training and cultural entertainment programmes that have been popular with young Arabs.

It is reasonable to conclude that the Arab region is undergoing a deepening identity and political crisis that has undermined collective action and complicated the role of the Arab League.

At the same time, it is premature to declare the end of the Arab League. The fact that the threats confronting Arab states are transnational and common necessitates cooperation and collective action. This is evident in Saudi Arabia spearheading efforts to assemble a military coalition from 34 Muslim countries to combat terrorism.

During its 2015 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Arab League created a multinational military force to combat emerging security threats. The force was put to action in Yemen with the participation of ten Arab countries. The league could yet play an indispensable role in establishing consensus towards the deployment of peace-keeping forces in disputed territories such as Yemen, Libya, Iraq or Syria.

Regional economic cooperation remains essential among Arab states. Economic threats have been often confronted by cooperation, evident in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) investments in Egypt simultaneous with Egyptian labour being utilised in GCC countries.

The geopolitics of the Arab states necessitates continuous cooperation in major economic sectors such as oil and gas. Major water gateways, including Bab el Mandab, Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the Hormuz straits, have proven fundamental and vital commercial shipping routes.

Cultural conservation and the revival of the Arabic language persists as an essential requisite for the preservation of intra-national, national and social cohesion as well as to safeguard against domestic fragmentation and sectarian polarisation.

Despite the impediments facing the Arab region, collective action is among critical options required for the survival and preservation of Arab sovereignty. Security, economic and cultural threats are, at the same time, opportunities for cooperation and integration.

From this perspective, the Arab League continues to provide a viable platform that can help foster inter-Arab relations and cooperation. Improving such a role, however, awaits crucial political decisions that can reformulate Arabism to accommodate the aspirations of the region’s multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian constituencies.