When the League exposes the disunion of the Arab world

Since its creation in 1945, the Arab League has inconsistently failed to fulfill its mission: to present a united Arab front while preserving the individual sovereignty of each member state.

Some of the heads of states attending the second Arab League summit in Alexandria in September 1964. From left to right : King Hussein of Jordan, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Naser, Iraqi president Abdul Salam Aref, Tunisia president Habib Bourguiba and King hassan II of Morocco. Alexandria Library /Wikicommons

Gamal Abdel-Nasser against King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein against Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Muammar Gaddafi against the rest of the Arab leaders. And more recently, sheikh Tamim ben Hamad al-Thani against both Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad ben Salman and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad ben Zayed al-Nahyan. Rivalries between regional powers, battles driven solely by ego, and ideological divisions have marked the modern history of the Arab world. Since 1945, not once has the Arab world been able, beyond the political rhetoric of speeches and photo ops, to stand as a united front. The Arab League, which was supposed to embody the unity of its members, has instead been a constant reflection of their divisions. The hasty departure on Sunday, March 31, of the Emir of Qatar during the 30th League summit, which took place in Tunis, fits perfectly within this dynamic. While Doha is the target of a two-year embargo led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt and Bahrain, the Emir left the room at the moment the Secretary of the Arab League, Ahmad Aboul Gheit, denounced Iranian and Turkish interference in the Arab world, a subject that divides the Arab world. The confrontation within the Sunni world, between the Saudi axis and Qatar, supported by Turkey, is shaping yet another rivalry that is weakening the Arab League, and raising questions about the efficiency of the organization.

Since its creation in Egypt on March 22, 1945, the League has become a place where internal conflicts are exacerbated, not resolved, although its goal is to help the region stand as a united front, while preserving the sovereignty of each, a mission that it has never been able to fulfill in practice. “The League has been the facade behind which the Arab states tried to hide their powerlessness, and they blame it for their shortcomings and their failures”, wrote in 1968 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian diplomat who would become the General Secretary of the United-Nations in 1992, writing in the French Annual Book of International Law.

The clash of the regimes

Internal showdowns started appearing in 1945 during the formation of the organization, a process initiated by Great Britain. Seven countries initially formed the League: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Yemen, and Transjordan. Today, the organization brings together 22 Member States of the Maghreb, the Near East and the Middle East. With its headquarters in Cairo, the League was quickly perceived as a tool to reinforce Egypt’s supremacy under Nasser. Taking advantage of its influence, Cairo pulled the strings of a Middle East undermined by the Cold War context. Egypt prevented Jordan’s entry into the pro-Western camp of the Baghdad Pact in 1955, successfully nationalized the Suez Canal, before creating the short-lived United Arab Republic with Syria. Three years after its conception, the alliance almost collapsed in 1961, due largely to Nasser’s desire to dominate the Syrians. “At the time of decolonization, the main division within the Arab League was between the states that continued to seek the patronage of the European imperial powers and the United States against the USSR, and those that formed the pan-Arab revolutionary bloc, led by Egypt”, Reem Abu el-Fadl, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, explained to L’Orient-Le Jour. “The Saudis in particular were opposed to the Egyptian rule, and this tension contributed to the “Arab Cold War” in the 1950’s and 1960’s”, she adds. These disagreements were only reinforced by the dispatch of Egyptian forces in 1962 to support the revolutionaries in Yemen, where civil war was raging. The proximity of Egyptian troops to Saudi’s territory exacerbated the –stand-off between the military regimes and the region’s traditional monarchies. The Six-Day War, however, put a violent break on the Egyptian hegemony and on pan-Arabism, which started its gradual decline shortly afterward. The final blow fell in 1979, when the Arab League moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis following the signing of the Camp David accords with Israel.

Bordering the ridiculous

From 1948, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the Arab league’s rallying cry, and one of its only points of consensus. Member States didn’t hesitate to stand up for the Palestinian cause by imposing a boycott of the Jewish state. Following the violent setback inflicted on Arab states by the Six-Day war in 1967, the League met at the Summit of Khartoum from where it proclaimed the three “no’s”: no to peace with Israel, no to the recognition of Israel, no to any negotiation with Israel. In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPAEP) countries introduced an oil embargo, demanding the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories occupied since 1967. A few years later, peace negotiations between Egypt and the Jewish state shook the region, with the Egyptian’s attitude perceived as treason by the rest of the League’s Member States.

Relationships within the organization deteriorated further with 1976’s formation of the Arab Deterrent Force, following the Special Summit of the Arab League in Riyadh. With the aim of intervening in a Lebanon immersed in a fully-fledged civil war, the force consisted mostly of Syrian troops, and was under the command of Damascus. Though the force was dissolved in 1983, the Syrian forces did not withdraw from Lebanon.

The war between Iraq and Iran, that followed the Islamic Revolution in 1979, created a new division in the region, with Syria the only Arab country that sided with Iran. It marked a new regional dynamic, with the rise of the “Sunni Vs Shiite” conflict. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was the first armed inter-Arab conflict since the League’s creation. The subject of much ridicule, the negotiations during the League’s Summit in Cairo in 1990 were notable for the Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs fainting during a conversation with his Iraqi counterpart while members of the Iraqi delegation were throwing plates of food at the Kuwaiti representatives.

A weak institution

One example from history perfectly sums up the League’s frustrations and sheds light on the rivalries between the Arab leaders. In 1987, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, wore a white glove during the League’s summit in Algeria when he had to shake hands with his counterparts; he did so in order not to touch their “bloodstained hands”. Undermined by internal divisions, “the Arab League proves to be a weak institution, incapable of managing the issues and problems raised in the Arab world in an effective manner”, said Paul Salem, Director of the Middle East Institute to L’Orient-Le Jour.

In 2003, the invasion of Iraq by the United States dealt a new blow to one of the most powerful regimes of the region, while the countries of the League agreed not to resort to any form of military intervention during the 2003 Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. The United Arab Emirates’ delegate went as far as suggesting in front of journalists -without the leaders having discussed it directly- that Saddam Hussein should leave power. The lack of unity continued in the following years, while Saudi Arabia was becoming stronger and more powerful, the Kingdom’s struggle against Iranian’s influence in the region was also becoming an obsession for the ruling family. The tornado that began with the Arab Spring in 2011 considerably reduced the League’s power. Viewed at first as a credible partner by the Western camp, the League’s inability to find common points of agreement or to avoid the escalation of tension in Syria or Libya, among others factors contributed to its diplomatic marginalization. 2011’s provisional freezing of Syria’s membership following the failure of the peace plan previously negotiated with Bashar al-Assad is likely to have very little impact. Eight years later, Syria is pushing hard to regain its place in the League and have its say in regional affairs.

(This article was originally published on the 5th of April)

Gamal Abdel-Nasser against King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein against Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Muammar Gaddafi against the rest of the Arab leaders. And more recently, sheikh Tamim ben Hamad al-Thani against both Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad ben Salman and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad ben Zayed al-Nahyan. Rivalries between regional powers, battles driven solely...

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