Marc Lynch

Making the Arab League Matter

Few international institutions have been more congenitally irrelevant than the League of Arab States. It’s problems are structural: a Charter rooted in the protection of state sovereignty, an autocratic and inept membership, a façade of Arab unity hardly concealing the reality of deep political divisions. The Arab League for long decades has been little more ...


Few international institutions have been more congenitally irrelevant than the League of Arab States. It’s problems are structural: a Charter rooted in the protection of state sovereignty, an autocratic and inept membership, a façade of Arab unity hardly concealing the reality of deep political divisions. The Arab League for long decades has been little more than a punchline for sad jokes about the failed hopes of unified or effective Arab action.

Some believe that this began to change over the last year. Certainly, it was startling to see the Arab League suddenly acting on regional security issues. Its rapid, unified response to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown in Libya, likely tipped the balance at the United Nations in favor of NATO’s military intervention. It has played an important role in the Syria crisis, from its suspension of Assad’s Syria to its unprecedented (albeit failed) observer mission and (also failed) bid for to a Security Council resolution. Some of its steps were intriguingly novel, such as the unprecedented suspension of Libyan and Syrian membership over the killing of their own people. And the summit recently held in Baghdad may have finally prodded some baby steps towards Iraq’s reintegration into the Arab world.

But this burst of activity was misleading. The revitalized Arab League was really a puppet show, as the GCC led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia used the conveniently empty vehicle of a moribund Arab League to pursue their agendas. The Arab League offered a more useful regional organization than the GCC for acting on Libya and Syria, especially at the United Nations. With traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Iraq and Syria flat on their backs there was nothing to block them from doing so on such issues. The focus of attention at the Security Council debate on Syria was Qatari Foreign Minster Hamed Bin Jassem, not Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi. The supposedly revitalized Arab League has shown little ability to act effectively on more contentious issues, to coordinate policies on Syria, to provide meaningful assistance to transitional member regimes, or to generate new ideas on the Palestinian issue. The GCC more often looked to non-Arab Turkey than to its Arab League partners for concrete support.

But this could change. Indeed, implausible as it sounds to long-time observers of the region, the Arab League may over the next few years emerge as a more interesting institution than it has ever before been — and more consequential than the currently dominant GCC. The key GCC states only dominate today because of their wealth and general lack of internal problems, the unusual cooperation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the internal weakness of traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As those states get their acts together, and the inevitable conflicts within and between Gulf states reappear, the Arab League might actually become interesting.

The Arab League, for all its flaws, has one core advantage: it is the only regional organization which brings together all of the self-identified Arab states. As such, it will likely remain the privileged regional interloctor for the United Nations and the focus of any kind of pan-Arab diplomacy. It can not easily be replaced by the GCC, no matter how much that idea might appeal to Doha or Riyadh, or by some sort of Parliament of Arab Peoples which would lack official standing or institutional cohesion.  

There will be a need for such a regional organization. Pan-Arab identity at the popular level has grown vastly stronger through the Arab uprisings of the past year and a half. This emergent pan-Arabism will ensure both their continuing focus on these shared regional issues — whether Syria or Palestine — and their relentless disappointment with the performance of their leaders.  Young Arabs may have little use for the Arab League as an institution, but it’s the only regional organization they’ve got. It is the only formal site for the robust political battles over collective Arab norms, initiatives, or policies.  

The GCC has clearly taken the lead role in Arab diplomacy over the last year. But the current dominant GCC position within the Arab League is a bubble. At least some of the traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria which are currently consumed by domestic chaos will in the coming years get their houses in order and retake their place as regional great powers. As they do so, the GCC will not be able to sustain its artificial domination of Arab institutions. Egypt, in particular, is likely to seek to use its traditional leadership of the Arab League (which is physically based in Cairo and has long had an Egyptian Secretary-General) as a pathway back into regional politics once its domestic transition resolves sufficiently to actually have a foreign policy. Potentially emergent powers excluded from the GCC, such as a new Libya or new Iraq, will likely try to empower an institution which includes them.

The biggest driver of change in the Arab League will be the increasing domestic diversity of its members. For decades, Arab states increasingly resembled one another in their internal political structures. Almost all Arab states were entrenched autocracies, with at best limited forms of superficial democratic participation. Almost all were close American military and political allies and part of a common security architecture. Almost all were content to sideline the Palestinian issue and cooperate with the United States against Iraq, Iran and al Qaeda, regardless of the feelings of their people. Even the traditional divide between monarchies and republics lost meaning as presidents such as Hafez al-Assad and Hosni Mubarak sought to hand over power to their sons.  

The Arab uprisings have introduced significant diversity into this isomorphic mix. It’s impossible to know how any of these emergent transitions will turn out, of course — can anyone really offer a firm prediction about how the Egyptian mess or the nascent Libyan state will resolve? But more diversity seems almost inevitable, as does a greater role for public opinion in foreign policy. Most Arab regimes — including monarchies like Jordan, Kuwait, and Morocco — will face turbulent politics and be more responsive to public opinion, whatever constitutional forms they take (or else, like Bahrain, retreat into sullen alienation and stifling repression at great cost to their own future). The need of these governments to respond to public opinion will likely push them toward more popular foreign policies, even if some continue to try to stick to the old games. 

Identity will also increasingly divide as well as unite — though, as should be obvious to all students of pan-Arabism, this has always been the case. The potent popular pan-Arabism ensures that there will be no easy shift to local or domestic issues alone. But the definition of Arabism will remain deeply contested, with very concrete implications. For instance, the GCC prefers to use Sunni identity as a unifying force amongst its Arab allies and a useful weapon against Iran, the Syrian regime, and their own domestic Shi’a populations — a formula potentially challenged by a Shi’a-led, semi-democratic Iraq. Islamists of some variety seem likely to play a greater role in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (at least), which poses a challenge to regimes which have demonized and repressed their own Islamists.   

The Arab League might therefore take on a very different feel as these domestically transforming states begin to play a meaningful regional role. The Gulf monarchies will remain influential, of course, though they will likely return to their bickering ways. An Egypt which pursues a relatively popular foreign policy might regain the regional power and influence which the decrepit Mubarak regime had squandered. A Libya not completely eccentric and self-marginalized could compete at the level of wealth. A successful, inspirational Tunisian democracy could offer a voice of moral authority. A somewhat stabilized Iraq actively engaged in Arab politics could introduce new views of Iran and of the political role for Shi’a communities with implications for regional security arrangements. And what role might be played by a new Syria — either with an Assad regime which has survived as an international pariah engulfed in protracted civil war or with some new kind of regime?

Decisions made over the last year might also provide an entry for new kinds of collective action through the auspices of the Arab League. The Saudis and Qataris might have had purely strategic goals in mind when they invented a new standard of Arab legitimacy by which leaders should not kill their own people. But that normative standard has now been articulated repeatedly and used to suspend the membership of both Libya and Syria. This is a major departure from the Arab League Charter’s traditional endorsement of state sovereignty. It is not inconceivable that emergent new powers could seek to institutionalize this new norm of conditional sovereignty.  Could Aryeh Neier’s creative idea of an Arab War Crimes Tribunal gain purchase? Could Bahraini or Saudi Shi’a begin to find a forum not dominated by the Gulf states to press their grievances?

I would not want to push this argument too far. I certainly wouldn’t predict the inevitability of an effective, unified Arab League. Little in history or current trends would suggest any confidence in that. I don’t expect the Arab League to follow the EU template any time…well, ever (ASEAN might be a more useful comparison, with more regional identity but less economic complementarity). But as we all attempt to peer ahead into the kind of regional politics to which the Arab uprising might give birth, it seems worth considering how an Arab League which incorporates these changing states could  become a far more interesting organization…and even a valuable part of a transformed, better Middle East. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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