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    Troubled legacy of the Arab League: What went wrong?

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     MAY 18, 2023 – DAILY SABAH

    The Arab League, which consistently stifles reforms, remains a perfect card in the hands of regional and global powers playing their own big games. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

    The Arab League, which consistently stifles reforms, remains a perfect card in the hands of regional and global powers playing their own big games. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

    Reforms are needed for the Arab League to regain relevance as it faces division and challenges in addressing regional conflicts


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    In a time of global turbulence marked by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the world is undergoing a significant shift. The traditional power dynamics are being reshaped, with countries in the Southern Hemisphere gaining more influence and autonomy. These changes are having a profound impact on the economic and geopolitical imperatives of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and global affairs as a whole. These developments are being closely observed by the majority of Arab leaders, politicians, elite classes and media pundits, as the politics and geopolitics of their region are of utmost importance within the framework of the Arab League.

    During the 31st Arab leaders summit held in Algiers last fall, the proceedings went beyond the usual photo opportunities and empty resolutions. Instead, the summit revitalized the sentiment of Pan-Arabism and provided renewed impetus to the organization. The summit emphasized the importance of Palestinian unity and called for concerted efforts to secure the rights of Palestinians and bring an end to the unjust and harsh occupation of Palestinian territories. Additionally, it advocated for the reintegration of the cultural, political and economic components of Arab countries, recognizing the significance of unity in shaping their collective future.

    Existence and skepticism

    However, the Arab people, political elite and media were no longer willing to accept another Arab leaders summit ending with dissension and quarrels as in previous summits. These gatherings had typically become mere forums for Arab leaders to superficially discuss chronic issues that seemed to have no cure. In the preliminary sessions, they would vote on the same old resolutions that held no real effect, condemning Israel’s occupation and stubbornness. The hearts and minds of these leaders, however, were often elsewhere. In fact, there have been instances where foreign guest leaders, like the then-Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, were caught on camera sleeping during the 21st summit in Sirte, Libya, in 2010, demonstrating their disengagement.

    Nonetheless, the year 2010 proved to be a turning point that ignited the first wave of Arab uprisings, reshaping the political and geopolitical landscape of the region. Unfortunately, Arab leaders and the majority of the elite did not perceive this as a serious wake-up call for radical change, despite the transformative impact of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to uproot the Jasmine shrub rather than trim it symbolized the lack of foresight and missed opportunities.

    This intellectual and historical dynamic, which Arab regimes later stifled, led to increased turmoil, despair, political violence and instability across the region. Sudan serves as an example, where a major disagreement between the two generals, Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, the country’s military chief, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti,” the militia chief of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), erupted into a street fight. While al-Burhan was portrayed as a figure preserving Sudan’s unity and safeguarding law and order, projecting an image of stability in the eyes of neighboring countries and Western capitals, the inefficient functioning of Arab League institutions, along with a lack of trust and genuine belief in a shared destiny and unity within the Arab world, contributed to this chaotic context.

    The ghost of incoherence

    Considering all these factors, the next Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia will be held on Friday to address various crucial issues. The discourse on Arab unity and solidarity will likely continue, but it remains to be seen how far Arab leaders are willing to go with their anti-Iran rhetoric, especially in light of the recent Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement. This diplomatic deal has the potential to shape a more balanced foreign policy trajectory in the Middle East.

    The summit will also need to address several pressing matters. Firstly, the issue of Palestinian unity and the ongoing Israeli military attacks on civilians in Gaza will be of paramount importance. Additionally, Lebanon’s financial and institutional crisis, the search for solutions to the Syrian civil war, political instability in Iraq, the political and security vacuum in Libya, the political impasse in Tunisia, the civil war in Yemen, the political existential fights among generals in Sudan, and the longstanding tensions between Algeria and Morocco will be on the agenda.

    Moreover, the summit will need to consider the new vision for Arab integration processes, both militarily and economically, in the complex geopolitical context of the dominant non-Arab triangle of Ankara, Tehran and Tel Aviv in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) politics and geopolitics.

    The thorny issue of migrants and illegal immigration will also require attention, as it poses a complex national security challenge for host countries and a political dilemma for transit and departure countries in the MENA region. With tens of thousands of people fleeing Sudan and seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Chad, the humanitarian crisis stemming from this situation will need urgent humanitarian protection and aid.

    There is also a security gap for countries like Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Italy and Malta, with the addition of millions of Syrian refugees hosted by Türkiye. Addressing this challenge will require serious public policies in terms of follow-up, protection, integration and post-integration measures in the host countries. Establishing a Humanitarian Agency within the Arab League, similar to the European organization ECHO, could help coordinate efforts and provide assistance in countries such as Türkiye, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and across the African Sahel.

    Regarding Arab common security policy imperatives, the regional tensions involving Iran are significant. The recent Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China may influence Arab leaders to adopt a neorealist policy toward Tehran. The normalization process with Israel could also be impacted and potentially slowed down due to the Saudi-Iran deal.

    Divisive factors

    However, the entente among Arab leaders is tenuous at best. The war against civilians in Sudan highlights the weakness of the Arab League, as each leader individually evacuated their citizens, effectively abandoning the Sudanese people to the whims of their two generals. It is ironic that Israel offered to host the rival Sudanese leaders for cease-fire talks while Arab states called for peace and Saudi Arabia proposed a cease-fire initiative, yet the war persists.

    Recently, in a rather lukewarm reunion, 13 out of the 22 member states of the Arab League reached an agreement, based on a simple majority, to allow Syria’s return to the League. This decision further underscores the division within the organization. In the past, analysts had hoped that Arab leaders would overcome their political narcissism and provide their people with political stability, security, and economic prosperity after burying the Arab political ideology of Nasserism.

    Seventy-eight years after its establishment, the Arab League, originally created to unify independent Arab states and support their struggle against colonialism, has devolved into a stagnant and quarrelsome body. Similar to the League of Nations, it has failed to effectively combat fanaticism and anarchy. So, what went wrong?

    The Arab League faces the same inhuman acts on Arab lands that it has been unable to resolve. For the Arab street, it has become an irrelevant organization, as Arab leaders are divided into different factions. This disunity is gradually eroding the fabric of the Arab lands like cancer. The self-destructive and volatile behavior of these leaders, both military and civilian, has caused successive generations to lose faith and trust in them.

    In summary, the younger generation feels like a sacrificed generation, cultivating a new sense of idealism not based on hope and patriotism like their elders, but on despair between attempting illegal crossings to Europe (al-Harga) and enduring injustice (al-Hogra) at home. Many young graduates from college, regardless of gender, are seeking a better life elsewhere in Europe, leaving their countries’ socio-political turmoil for their leaders’ alter egos to deal with. The Arab League, which consistently stifles reforms, remains a perfect card in the hands of regional and global powers playing their own big games.


    North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)

    source https://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/op-ed/troubled-legacy-of-the-arab-league-what-went-wrong


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