The summit of decline: In defence of an Arab league

Is it time for the Arab League to disband?

Tunis Summit Reuters
Arab leaders pose for the camera ahead of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia on March 31, 2019 [The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

What is the point of Arab summitry? What is the point of the Arab League as a whole? Is it an anachronism? A misnomer?

These are some of the questions Arabs and non-Arabs ponder after each and every annual summit ends with empty cliches and little or no actionable consensus on any of the urgent challenges facing the Arab world.

Tunisia, like other host states, hoped the Tunis Summit would leave its mark on history for something, anything. It hoped to see at least some meaningful progress made on the most intractable conflict in the region. There had been already a few precedents.

The 1967 Khartoum Summit gave us the three no’s: no to recognition, no to negotiations, and no to peace with Israel. The 1974 Rabat Summit designated the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. And then the 2002 Beirut Summit adopted the Saudi initiative, offering recognition and normalisation with Israel in return for the latter’s withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories.

But those results were exceptions coming in the aftermath of wars. In Tunisia, hopes for big results were replaced by hopes for big attendance, and the attempt at a breakthrough ended in a bust.

Like the majority of Arab summits, the 2019 Tunis Summit will go down in history as having achieved nothing of consequence.

The summit of ‘solidarity and determination’

The Tunisian president, Mohammed Beji Caid Essebsi, dubbed the event the “summit of solidarity and determination” – a befitting description for a gathering of Arab leaders that displayed much rhetorical solidarity and theoretical determination and little else.

The leaders adopted a dozen and a half resolutions that are bound to be forgotten tomorrow. They made no consequential decisions on any urgent challenge facing the Arab world today; not the war in Syria, not the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, not Libya’s failed state, and certainly not on the conflict with Israel.

The bar was so low that Iraq was congratulated during the summit for merely setting up a government, and paralysed Algeria was asked to help war-crippled Libya get back on its feet. The league completely also ignored the Gulf crisis at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

As expected, the summiteers rejected US President Donald Trump’s proclamation that bestowed American legitimacy on the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. But judging from the utter lack of results from their earlier rejection of Trump’s blessing of another Israeli annexation – that of Jerusalem – there will be little meaningful follow-up.

The Arab League called the December 2017 announcement of the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “dangerous and unacceptable” and a “flagrant attack on a political solution” to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict”, and even dubbed their 2018 summit in Saudi Arabia, “The Jerusalem Summit”. Big words, but nothing concrete came of it apart from a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution rejecting the US move.

The Arab regimes have violated their own 1980 decision to sever relations with any state that moves its embassy to Jerusalem. Any doubts that the league has any agency at all were put to rest in the wake of the Jerusalem debacle.

Predictably, the Arab League has turned a deaf ear to calls from Palestinians to follow through on its own repeated resolutions. After all, breaking relations is unthinkable for those relying on Washington for their survival and legitimacy.

Worse, the Arab response on Jerusalem was so meagre that it encouraged Trump to bestow broader US legitimacy on the Israeli occupation and annexation of Arab lands.

What about pressure from immediate neighbours? Well, the Saudi and Egyptian leaders raised the spectre of non-Israeli, non-Arab boogeymen, repeating their warnings against Iranian interference in Arab affairs, with their point man, Secretary-General Ahmad Abu Al Ghait, equating Turkey’s role in the Arab world with that of Iran.

Paradoxically, however, it is these two countries that are also rooting for the return of Iran’s greatest Arab ally, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab League.

A league of their own

In short, Arab leaders are happy to play a blame game but fail to unite around a nuanced strategy to deal effectively with the various regional and international powers intervening in the Arab world.

Likewise, they have failed in dealing with intra-Arab challenges with no less devastating consequences, even more so when it comes to the daily lives of millions of ordinary people.

They may claim to act in the name of national security or the national interest but they are motivated primarily by their own undemocratic survival. Indeed, these regimes spare no life, no effort and no expense to solidify their power, including projecting their troubles to their neighbours through the instigation of conflict and instability.

Like pyromaniac firemen, leaders who pretend to put out the sectarian fire engulfing the region, are the ones who fanned its flames from the outset.

To mystify their true intentions, Arab leaders claim to merely put their people’s interest ahead of those of the broader Arab world. But judging by history and the current state of affairs, all such attempts have ended in miserable failure to protect not just the pan-Arab interest, but also the country-specific interests of Arab peoples.

The outbreak of the Arab upheavals in 2011 has exposed this poor state of the Arab state. But Arab leaders have generally chosen to double down on repression and corruption, and persisted in their zero-sum policies, domestically and regionally, that have weakened Arab solidarity and determination.

All of this begs the question: Is it time for the league to wither and die away?

The Arabs deserve better

The short answer is, no. The problem lies not with the institution, but rather with the behaviour of its members.

Inter-state institutions are indispensable for the management of our interdependent global system after centuries of colonialism, two world wars and sweeping globalisation.

Like the European Union, NATO, BRICS or the United Nations, the Arab League’s success or failure depends first and foremost on the commitment of its members to its charter. Despite a violent past and diverse languages and cultures, Europe has shown that individual and collective state security and prosperity are intertwined.

There’s nothing revolutionary or sexy about successful regional endeavours. They require political stability, tedious, deliberate planning, and above all a belief in a common destiny and the courage to make compromises to reach it.

The European Union is well aware of this, but the Arab League is not. Instead of implementing its various economic, defence and cultural agreements, today’s Arab regimes are undermining these collective blueprints for unity and prosperity, as they collect dust on the shelves of the league’s headquarters in Cairo.

And that’s just tragic.

The 400 million Arabs, who share the same geography and the same history, bitter and sweet; a people who worship the same God and share the same pride in a glorious past; a people who write with the same alphabet, read the same books, recite the same poetry and sing the same lyrics – they deserve at least one functioning institution that truly represents their collective will.

As Arab poet Khalil Gibran summed it up: Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.