As their governments argue, Arabs look to non-political ways to bridge differences.
20 Jun 2008
Infighting, political disputes and alliances with foreign powers have led to a very visible disunity at the Arab League summit in Damascus [AFP]
The Arab League – ideally a symbol of unity – has often served as an arena for regional disputes.
The league was established in 1945 with the express goal of strengthening ties among member states and co-ordinating policies for their common good.
But in reality, Arab League meetings have too often been marked by heated disputes and divisions between individual members.
Has the dream of Arab unity run out of steam?
As the 20th Arab Summit gets underway in Damascus, Arab governments appear more divided than ever.
Previous Arab summits have exposed cracks in unity and nationalism, but this year the differences have become more public – and pronounced.
Nearly half of the 22-member Arab League is represented in Damascus by low-ranking official delegations. Lebanon is boycotting the sessions entirely.
Some commentators have blamed US influence on its Arab allies as one of the reasons behind attemps to scuttle the summit. Others have blamed Iran.
Our blood and our language may be one, but there is nothing that can unite us”
Observers of Arab history believe the divisions come while the Middle East stands at its most dangerous of crossroads.
The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians remains as elusive as ever; human rights organisations say the people of Gaza are on the verge of a catastrophe as the Israeli-enforced economic blockade continues.
Political infighting and armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas have also taken their toll.
Iraq, on the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation, is falling apart as the much-feared sectarian warfare enters a new dimension – fierce fighting between rival Shia factions and the Shia-led Iraqi government.
Lebanon is without a president and internal political disputes have boiled over into the international sphere with France and the US blaming Syria and Iran for much of the country’s woes.
Algeria and Morocco still have ongoing disputes over the Western Sahara. Sudan has been unable to bring stability to Darfur as tensions soar with neighbouring Chad.
Somalia enters its second decade of disarray with the central government in Mogadishu unable to assert control on armed tribes.
This is the Arab nation of 2008.
Disunity and inaction
Gaddafi bitterly – and bluntly – criticised Arab leaders for their disunity [GALLO/GETTY]
Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan president, poured contempt on fellow Arab leaders at the Damascus summit, which has been overshadowed by the absence of several key leaders.
Gaddafi asked: “How can we accept that a foreign power comes to topple an Arab leader while we stand watching?”
He said Saddam Hussein, the executed Iraqi president, had once been an ally of Washington, “but they sold him out”.
“Your turn is next,” Gaddafi told the Arab officials gathered for the conference, some of whom looked stunned while others broke into laughter at his frankness.
In his speech, the Libyan leader also criticised Arab disunity and inaction on the region’s multiple crises.
“Where is the Arabs’ dignity, their future, their very existence? Everything has disappeared,” he said.
“Our blood and our language may be one, but there is nothing that can unite us.”
Hoping for unity
But Ahmed Bin Hali, a senior Arab League official, played down differences and said that there will always be diverse political currents in the Arab nation.
“The Arabs, in co-ordination with the Iraqi government, must open a discussion with the US – with the inclusion of Turkey and Iran – to stabilise Iraq,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said that the Damascus summit will provide Arab leaders a chance to overcome their differences and stabilise relations.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, said Arab League summits provide member states the opportunity to air their differences and to try to bridge the gaps that may exist between them.
He said he disagreed with the concept of boycotting the summit.
“If we have differences with Syria, we will face Syria and discuss these differences,” Sheikh Hamad said recently.
A unifying media?
A Question of Arab Unity Web special coverage
Arabs Seek Common Cause Spanning 22 countries with 320 million people, they share three general commonalities.
Revolution Calling With promises of a unified state broken, uprisings and revolt swept the Middle East.
Rising Nationalism Secularism and Islamism emerged as political movements during the 1920s and 30s.
1948: A Cause for Arab Unity? The creation of the State of Israel became a rallying call for Arab nationalism.
Nasser’s Age of Revolution In 1952, an Egyptian army officer stepped forward to lead the drive for Arab unity.
In the ninth and concluding part of Al Jazeera’s nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, we explore the relationship between Arab countries and their media, and explore whether political differences can be bridged culturally.
The Arab World is being brought together in a shared cultural and political experience by trans-national media based on fast evolving satellite technology.
Pan-Arab media are creating platforms for dialogue and for shared experiences – and in the process are bringing Arabs together.
Slogans like the “Arab Street” are being bandied about and the ordinary citizen is voicing discontent with the state of the world around him.
Building on a common language and traditions, the people of the region are sharing their experiences in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago.
The proliferation of independent media means hard-hitting realities are often televised and reported immediately.
And Arab audiences have access to an instant and up-close view of the daily struggles, squabbles and suffering of their fellow Arabs.
But this has lead to accusations that the new media has been a force of disunity in the region.