Q&A: What ever happened to the Arab League?

Middle East scholar Sean Yom discusses why the Arab League is unable to resolve disputes and present a coherent front.

Arab League
In the past, Israel, Jerusalem and Palestinian plight 'created League-wide conformity' [M Hossam/EPA-EFE]

The Arab League has often been criticised for its inability to resolve the very issues on which its existence is premised.

Over the years, the body’s rallying cry of “one Arab nation with an eternal mission” has given way to increasingly more pronounced reservations about the institution’s relevance.

In 2016, and after deciding to initially postpone the annual leaders’ summit, Morocco announced it would forgo hosting the event altogether.

A statement from the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time said moving forward with the event would project a false sense of unity among member-states.

“Amid the lack of important decisions and concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states, this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity”.

“Arab leaders cannot confine themselves, once more, to simply analysing the bitter situation of divergences and divisions without giving decisive responses”.

Only seven of the league’s 22 leaders attended the meeting subsequently held in Mauritania.

Critics say this year’s edition, not unlike others before it, will fail to bridge the political divide that has come to characterise the body’s modern history, with the ongoing Gulf crisis adding yet another layer of complexity.

Sean Yom, associate professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East, shared some of his thoughts with Al Jazeera on the Arab League’s mixed record.

Al Jazeera: Would you say that the paralysis in the Arab League is due to unprecedented divisions between Arab countries not witnessed since the group’s inception?

Sean Yom: I would say the League’s paralysis reflects its irrelevance since the 2000s, and that’s the unprecedented part. There have always been high points of unity spurred usually by Israel, and low points of fragmentation caused by internal rifts – for instance, Egypt in 1978, Iraq/Kuwait in 1990.

What has happened in the 2000s and beyond, however, is a real shift in geopolitical weight. In the 2000s, the US reached the apex of its hegemony, as witnessed by the fact that it could essentially order the destruction of one regime (Iraq) no matter the opinions of the league.

As American hegemony has faded since then, due to a resurgent Iran, the Arab Spring, and increasingly Asia-oriented foreign policy in Washington, the League has not filled the regional void with a renewed sense of unity and purpose.

Instead, we see intra-League rivalries and disagreements, buttressed by the fact that a good number of these countries are struggling with internal sovereignty or unity since the Arab Spring.

Perhaps the greatest indications of the League’s irrelevance today, and reversal of its long-standing positions reflecting past points of unity – the turning of its back on Hezbollah, despite its anti-Israeli credentials, and its inability to inject any voice into the Jerusalem debate.

In the past, Israel, Jerusalem and the Palestinian plight were some of the few things that could create League-wide conformity; and yet today, it is an illustration of its division.

Al Jazeera: Is the Arab League a reflection of internal/external power dynamics where different blocs try to extend their influence and where conflicting loyalties to outside powers then hinder cooperation?

Yom: I would not say the League’s current doldrums reflect external machinations, because outside powers have always shaped and shifted state loyalties, especially during the Cold War.

If anything, the last decade has given the League an unprecedented opportunity to generate renewed unity given the retreat of American power. But instead, we see fragmentation.

I think geopolitics comes into play for several reasons: the decline of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt as major players in pan-Arab politics (and that’s the unparalleled dimension of today’s Middle East terrain); the forceful interventionism of Saudi Arabia (rather than its timid forays in Yemen in the early 1960s, we now see Saudi fingerprints across much of the region’s internal politics) caused by generational change within its dynastic circle; an increasingly assertive Iran, whose coercive capabilities have grown objectively stronger over time; and the general unwillingness of foreign powers to fundamentally rebalance the region, apart from one-off humanitarian or strategic interventions.

This is a far cry from the 2000s, when the region was under the definitive shadow of American hegemony and the rules of the game were clear.

Al Jazeera: Has the Arab Spring accentuated political differences between Arab states?

Yom: The Arab Spring took out Egypt and Syria from the pan-Arab equation (as power players); the Iraq War did the same for Iraq years earlier.

Also, while the Arab Spring exposed the internal fragilities of these states, as evidenced by the extent of domestic dissent, it renewed the use of foreign policy by some states as a diversionary tactic to draw the attention of domestic societies away from bad governance and authoritarian excesses at home.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and Morocco have all utilised some bit of this strategy.

Al Jazeera: If the Arab League is ineffectual, as many observers maintain, why does it still exist?

Yom: It exists for the same reason that many regional organisations that are ineffective at integration (the purpose of ROs) exist – because they are supposed to exist in an era of international sovereignty and organisational complexity.

These are post-colonial countries that have to act, behave and project like long-standing sovereign states. Creating an RO to help coordinate regional policies and facilitate conflict resolution is a logical part of this process.

Plus, it’s extremely difficult to dissolve a regional organisation, once created – not due to costs, but because it requires a collective act of admission that the entire venture was a failure, and most regional states will not admit that.

I would also say that the League still exists because, despite the decline of pan-Arabism, there is still a romantic notion among Arab intellectuals and elites that regional unity is attainable, that Arabness can still be a force for change, and that the League can continue to act as a vessel for potential cooperation.

I find this notion rapidly fading with the younger generations, though. If we are going to see the League simply dissolve away, it will probably take another decade or two.

Source: Al Jazeera