Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Whither the Arab League?

Another multilateral organisation shattered by the Iraq war must consider how to pull itself together.
By Ghayth Armanazi

The war against Iraq left in its wake many a shattered regional and international collective that had propped up, with varying degrees of success, the global political order that hitherto prevailed. That amorphous order, often referred to glibly and self-servingly as the 'international community', served as a point of reference under which states operated with some semblance of belonging to a higher legal and moral authority.

The United Nations, the European Union, Nato - all suffered what could develop into irreparable damage as a result of the geo-strategic onslaught unleashed on the rules of international conduct by the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Yet none is destined to feel the impact of the Iraqi war more critically than the League of Arab States. Already severely weakened by years, if not decades, of steady decline as more and more of its member states broke away from the spirit and discipline of Joint Arab Action (the mantra underlying the foundations of the League), the build-up to the US-led military campaign against Iraq exposed as never before the almost complete impotence of the Arab regional order notionally represented by the Arab League.

The entire world was seized by the gravity of the gathering storm. Governments and public opinion across the globe - and in the very heart of the divided Western alliance - expressed bitter opposition to the impending war and the alarming political doctrine that was driving policy-makers in Washington. Yet Arab leaders were perceived to have abdicated their responsibility not only towards a country central to the national, historical, and cultural life of the Arabs, but also towards the region they inhabit, whose destiny they left for others to determine.

The descent of Arab League decision-making to levels of almost pure farce is best illustrated by a long catalogue of resolutions which increasingly bear no relation either to political reality or to the signatories' intentions to abide by them. Thus, for example, at the last summit meeting held in Sharm el Sheikh on 1 March, the conference adopted a resolution committing member states to 'rejecting absolutely' any strike on Iraq and 'refraining' from participating in any military operation. Many Arabs were left wondering whether allowing your territory to be used as a launch-pad for precisely such military operations constitutes 'participation' or not.

It is ironic that the Iraqi war was used by Arabs of the pro-war and anti-war camps to attack the Arab League. The former - mostly, but by no means solely, Kuwaitis - based their criticism on the League's inability to 'rise to the occasion' by facing up to the long legacy of Saddam's regime and its catastrophic impact on Arab affairs. The latter also took the League to task for not 'rising to the occasion', but, in their view, for not coming to the defence of a member state in accordance with the solemn treaty obligations of its member states - notably the Collective Security treaty, which nominally binds members of the League but which has remained buried in its dusty archives.

So where does the Arab League go from here now that the war in Iraq is all but over, at least in its full-blown military phase? The hope, if there is any, of a revival of its fortunes rests on many factors that at the moment seem unpredictable.

The Iraqi problem, which is far from resolved and which heralds more conundrums than solutions, will be an immediate testing-ground of Arab resolve at least to join in the re-shaping of Iraq's future. Yet, as the recent ministerial summit in Riyadh indicated, it is to a regional framework involving Turkey and Iran rather than to a pan-Arab one that Iraq's Arab neighbours are looking to preserve some semblance of a role for themselves in the post-war jockeying for position.

This nascent regional framework can, if institutionalised, become yet one more nail in the coffin of the Arab League.

Yet it need not be all doom or gloom for the League if, as a result of the trauma inflicted by the Iraqi war, Arab leaders and the political, economic and media elites enter into a serious debate about re-building the failed institutions of the Arab regional system. Signs of that happening are in evidence. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak recently stressed the need to amend the Charter of the League to allow for decisions by majority vote, thereby addressing one of the fundamental impediments to workable resolutions. He stressed the importance of building a strong and resilient economic foundation for the Arab body politic as the only way for Arabs to become masters of their own destiny.

One crucial role may yet await the League should there be serious moves towards a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for it is the internationally recognised custodian of the common Arab position on the comprehensive peace announced last year at an Arab summit in Beirut. With such a peace once more on the international and US agendas - or so it is hoped, in the face, it has to be said, of well-founded scepticism - the Arab League could find itself thrust into the foreground again. It would do well to prepare itself for such an eventuality.

In the longer term, the survivability of the Arab League depends on it embarking on a serious programme of reform and evolving into an institution around which common Arab interests can effectively coalesce and through which can be formulated and implemented policies that serve not the rhetoric but the realities and needs of Arab contemporary life.

Ghayth N. Armanazi is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Arab affairs and a former Arab League ambassador to the United Kingdom.

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