Seventy years ago this month, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Transjordan signed in Cairo the pact of the League of Arab States, capitalizing on British war-time promises of support for Arab unity. The representative of the Imam of Yemen did not make it on time, but a message reached the Egyptian capital to confirm Imam Yahya would also sign and ratify the pact.
Cooperation in various areas, military included, was the general goal of the Arab League. With Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism alive and kicking, a major concern among its founding members was the remaining post-war European colonial ambitions and a looming Jewish state in Palestine.
One of the most striking characteristics of the various regional crises is the disagreements among regional states and the absence of coordinated strategiesManuel Almeida
Today, with the next Arab League summit taking place in two weeks, the pressing worry for Arab states no longer is the machinations of European colonial powers but the collapse of state institutions across the Arab world. From Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya, internal revolutions, regime brutality, sectarian tensions, regional rivalries, foreign meddling and transnational jihadism have combined into the gravest crisis the region has seen in a long time.
A multinational force
Ahead of the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting between March 28-29, the Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby has renewed the calls for the creation of a multinational force that "is able to look at what unites" its members to combat the threat of militant jihadism. Can the summit deliver?
Despite the constant criticism it receives for being inconsequential, the Arab League has at times played an active role in the crises that followed the Arab uprisings. It coordinated a common position that gave key regional support to the Western intervention in Libya that overthrew Moammar Qaddafi, and it backed the GCC’s plan to sideline President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.
In response to Bashar al-Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters and the collapse of an Arab League peace deal, Syria’s membership was suspended in late 2011 and an agreement was also reached to impose political and economic sanctions on the regime.
The following year the Arab League recognized the opposition National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Syrian National Coalition representatives were received with a round of applause in the Doha summit when they took the seats that previously belonged to the Assad regime. But under Iran’s influence, Lebanon (where Hezbollah remains dominant) and Iraq, as well as Algeria, undermined much of the Syrian opposition’s chances to make full use of the new role in the organization. This being a good example of the inherent Arab League weakness of being tied to the individual will of its member states.
Various regional crises
One of the most striking characteristics of the various regional crises is the disagreements among regional states and the absence of coordinated strategies. The GCC states still do not have a common approach for Syria despite their eagerness to see Assad removed. In Libya, Egypt and Qatar have found themselves again on opposite sides, with Sudan and the UAE (as well as Turkey) also involved in backing different camps.
Recent developments suggest this problem has been recognized and is being addressed. Divergences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one hand and Qatar on the other over the role of Muslim Brotherhood are apparently being bridged to a level where it doesn’t undermine collaboration on other fronts. The recent visits of the presidents of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan to Riyadh show some momentum building up among Sunni governments, although Egypt will remain at odds with Qatar and Turkey for the foreseeable future.
Three issues, which represent different priorities for the members of the Arab League, are contributing to this relatively renewed diplomatic atmosphere: fear of a possible deal over Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s expansionist agenda into Arab countries; the ongoing fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; and the deadlock in Syria, including the training of moderate Syrian opposition forces and the scenario of no-fly and protection zones.
In this context, it is possible that the 26th Arab League summit might work as the platform where Arab governments (certainly with the exceptions of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) will take further steps to coordinate their positions. Given the magnitude of the region’s problems, there might even be one or two positive surprises for the skeptics. If that doesn’t happen, it will be all too easy to lay part of the blame at least on the toothless Arab League instead of national interests narrowly defined.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.