The Arab League: a shadow of a decades old united mission

Analysts speak to Doha News about the ‘ineffectiveness’ of the Arab League and the need to reform it from within.

Leaders from the Arab League are meeting again for the first time since 2019, this time in Algeria following a period in which the region has faced major changes.

Some of the said developments actively involved the Gulf nations, most notably the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reconciliation in 2021 under the Al-Ula Declaration. 

The historic accord ended a four-year rift that divided the region, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed their ties with Qatar.

While the accord is perceived to have somewhat resolved the split between the neighbouring states, the Arab League itself is increasingly be viewed as a mosaic of a fragmented region, with the core essence of the bloc withering rapidly as each country strives to serve its own interests.

“The Arab League today is but a shadow of itself when it was first established as a collection for common Arab action,” Dr. Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, told Doha News.

Since its inception in 1945, the bloc was built on a common mission for the Arab world. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Said who proposed its establishment had a vision of a united Arab bloc.

At its early age, it embodied a united region, especially in light of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

“At that time, there was enthusiasm for defending common interests, but now, each state has its own interests to defend. The Arab world is very divided and disunited,” explained Dr. Harb.

Division on the bloc’s central issue

During its heyday, there seemed to be a common vision and stance, particularly with regards to the Israeli occupation’s blatant crimes against Palestinians. 

In 1964, the Arab League created the Palestinian Liberation Order, which states that “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty.”

In 1967 during the Arab League Summit in Sudan, the entity issued the Khartoum Resolution, which barred all interactions from the contributing members with the Zionist state, stating, “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”

Fast forward to 2021, Khartoum itself has normalised with Tel Aviv under the Abraham Accord just months after Abu Dhabi and Manama signed it in 2020.

Under the Abraham Accord, which has been slammed by many Arab communities both in the region and in the diaspora, including those whose countries have signed it, the signatories officially brought one of the region’s main threats to the very centre of it.

Criticism over the league’s ineffectiveness grew last year during the deadly 11-day Israeli offensive on Gaza, where the occupation’s forces killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children. 

This year, the bloc came under scrutiny when Gaza faced another deadly bombardment in August, which ended following a truce brokered by Qatar and Egypt.

“An overwhelming majority of the Arab public consider the Arab League as an ineffective organisation and a fragile structure that failed to advance the joint Arab action over decades,” Dr. Ali Bakeer, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Professor at Qatar University, told Doha News.

Despite Palestine being at the heart of the bloc and, geographically, at the heart of the Arab world, the support towards its liberation has declined over the decades. 

Key evidence on the shortcomings of the Arab League towards Israel has been visible, with the Zionist regime continuing to murder Palestinians and occupying the land with impunity. 

Although the Abraham Accords violated the core commitments of the Arab League, the bloc failed to call out the normalising states for their move. A possible reason for this can be due to the UAE’s overarching influence in the region, being the pioneer in Israeli normalisation, smaller and less influential Arab states may not have the capacity to outright condemn the move.

“[The Arab League is] almost totally ineffective in addressing the issue of Palestine, ongoing conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Western Sahara, and the questions of democratisation and human rights as well as economic and social development,” said Dr. Harb.

Return of the Syrian regime

Among the latest areas of division in the bloc is the return of the Bashar Al Assad regime to the same table as world leaders that had condemned his war crimes against Syrians.

Algiers has been increasing its efforts to push for the reinstatement of the Syrian regime’s membership.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also joined Algeria in working to bring Assad back to the bloc’s table. In 2019, Abbas had called for the return of Damascus to the Arab League, though this did not come as a surprise given his maintained ties with Syria.

“Readmitting Syria into the Arab League means that the Arab world at large has forgotten the crimes of the Assad regime against millions of Syrians,” said Dr. Harb. 

The unity displayed by the Arab League in light of the war in Syria was when it decided to suspend the country’s membership from the bloc due to Assad’s ongoing atrocities and war crimes against civilians. 

However, even then, the stances of the region regarding the Syrian regime were divided and the gap only widened, with more Arab countries normalising with Assad. Some of those nations include the UAE and Jordan, who actively engage with Assad himself.

“Arab states would really be rehabilitating oppression and criminal autocracy, which will then be an indictment of the Arab political order,” added Dr. Harb.

Qatar has maintained its unwavering stance with regards to the Syrian regime, staunchly refusing normalisation due to Assad’s ongoing flagrant human rights abuses against civilians.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring protests more than a decade ago, Qatar has repeatedly and openly called on Assad to step down. The Gulf state was also the first Arab country to close its embassy in the war-torn country and establish an office for the Syrian opposition.

Apart from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also voiced their opposition to the return of the regime to the bloc.

“Some Arab countries have been active in the last few years in promoting the return of the Assad regime to the Arab League. The lobbying continues on this matter, but I think the final word in this issue is not related to the bloc or the member states,” said Dr. Bakeer.

Change from within

The troubled MENA region witnessed a glimmer of hope during the Arab Spring in 2011, where the nations in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain took to the streets protesting the oppression they suffered at the hands of their regimes.

“There was some hope that the Arab League would witness a drastic change where the Arab public got to decide their fate and effectively address their problems. However, soon after, that hope faded away,” said Dr. Bakeer.

While the revolutions saw the fall of various dictators, the countries were left with a power vacuum that turned, for the most part, into an arena for proxy wars. 

A key example has been Yemen, a country living under war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, also involving the UAE. With a failure to bring the war to an end and to renew the latest ceasefire, Yemen’s agony has only persisted.

“What has dominated the League is the individualistic spirit of Arab states,” said Dr. Harb.

Commenting on the need for reform in the Arab League, Dr. Bakeer said that member states must change domestically.

“The bloc isn’t expected to witness a serious reform  until the member states witness a serious change themselves to reflect the voices of the people. Currently we are far away from that point,” said Dr. Bakeer.

The latest Arab League summit is set to discuss various issues concerning the region, including the ongoing conflict in Yemen, Syria’s decade-long war, Libya’s political turmoil and the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.

With the Arab League’s influence continuing to decline, Dr. Harb described it as “a product of general weakness in Arab political development”.

“To be effective, the Arab League needs to work on developing the institutional framework to make it a respected and respectable institution. Large and rich states decide what the League and the Arab world need, and this is not necessarily a good policy,” said Dr. Harb.

With the Arab League summit convening for its 31st session following a long period of delay, analysts believe there is little hope in its possible outcomes.

“Regardless of the nature of the anticipated summit, the biggest challenge will remain as usual turning the words into deeds,” said Dr. Bakeer.

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