The Arab League’s raison d’etre may be the lack of other options
The Arab League summit, scheduled for March 31 in Tunis, is expected to recapture some of the league’s momentum. Arab League meetings became arenas in which scores were settled and power balances tested and showcased in the halls of the institution.
The Tunis summit is not expected to be any different. The host country may be keen to steer the summit towards a safe exit with minimal damage, rather than actively seek possible gains and outcomes for the Arab countries.
The prevailing atmosphere around this summit is much like previous ones. It is not expected to address the core problems and conflicts. It is more likely that the bare minimum and already declared positions will simply be repeated and restated.
Is such an outcome satisfactory for the sustainability of an institution as important and prominent as the Arab League?
The same controversies about the usefulness of the Arab League and its importance in resolving and coordinating positions on crucial Arab issues are rehashed before every summit. Even the Palestinian issue, generally a subject of consensus, has become a point of contention.
Meetings I have had in the past few weeks with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit confirmed that he is optimistic about the institution and he says its continued existence is necessary.
His response to those who criticise the Arab League’s declining role is that the league represents the total of the strength of Arab countries. If the majority is weak and is confronting complex problems, then it is natural for the league to suffer and stumble in taking decisive positions that people expect.
Aboul Gheit sometimes resorts to diplomatic speak when he finds it difficult to directly discuss the Arab League’s impotence but he does not deny there are harsh pressures from within and outside the league that prevent it from playing its role with political vitality. He said he wishes the hurdles standing in its way would be cleared.
Aboul Gheit defended the league as an important Arab bastion, even if the role of this edifice is not visible or tangible to many. He said he found in the Arab-European summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh last month, some protective shield against the arrows of those who like to sharply criticise the Arab League.
The league has engaged in dialogue with the European Union and in shaping the formula that led to a summit for which Aboul Gheit sees a promising future. The meeting showed that the tools and mechanisms available to the Arab League work and, if used well, could benefit all.
Aboul Gheit may have put his finger on some of the league’s wounds and his message is essentially moral, which confers on someone in his position a symbolic role. It does not, however, relieve him of the responsibility of reinvigorating this role, expanding its scope and achieving tangible gains, which would give the Arab League the importance it is supposed to have as the umbrella group of Arab countries.
Summits and ministerial meetings organised by the Arab League, whether within the league or in cooperation with other entities, only deal with issues related to politics, economics, security or other emerging fields in international relations. They do not lead to injecting new blood and a new spirit in the league because this matter requires creative initiatives and measures and arrangements adapted to current world realities, with all the associated developments in concepts and modes of dealing flexibly with emerging surprises.
The differences between those opposing the Arab League and those supporting it have recently subsided. Arab states, entities and political figures are no longer interested in closing or reforming this institution, as if everyone has become satisfied with the situation it has found itself in — both “existing” and “not existing” at the same time.
Institutional development requires a strong will and desire to adopt proposals and measures that lead to desired outcomes. The Arab League’s model is supposed to make the institution up to the challenges facing its members, individually and collectively.
However, this is difficult with the growing disagreement gap between members and the general impotence of the league’s structures. As a result, many see the league as a political forum that reluctantly meets once a year, with no harm done if it does not meet at all.
Regardless of their aims, countries that previously demanded development and reform no longer dare to speak. It’s as though they have become completely despondent and given up on the prospect of receiving a concerted response to their cries for help.
Moreover, the adoption of such positions made those countries spar with the other members that want to preserve the Arab League in its amorphous state, one in which the institution does not play the role it should but also does not collapse from the weight of the political burdens it places on members’ backs.
Shutting down the Arab League is a very undesirable solution for many members because they do not have a ready alternative. Besides, some countries in leadership have got used to taking advantage of the debilitated condition of the institution to serve specific political agendas. The league has become a moral tool for punishment or flattery when its decisions target friends or foes.
Demolishing the institution would create leeway for some countries to abdicate their symbolic responsibilities, giving them justification to ally with regional non-Arab forces and lead to the formation of different blocs, bringing back to mind what had happened in the 1980s and 1990s when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union were established and the Damascus Declaration project was announced.
Only the first bloc survived — due to its specificity — but even the GCC has started to falter after the crisis with Qatar when it pursued policies against the interests of key GCC members.
The frail condition of the Arab League has stood up to a lot of political and security winds in recent times but it is unlikely that it will withstand much longer the increasing rifts between Arab countries and the declining importance of their common interests on the one hand and their growing interests with non-Arab countries on the other. The calls for reform or demolition may come back even louder in the future.