Arab League, now irrelevant, scrambles to hold next summit

Osama al sharif
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. (Photo: Jordan News)
Not since the Arab League’s 23rd summit, held in Baghdad in March 2012, had so much controversy surrounded the fate of its such meetings; this time, it is about the 2022 summit, slated to take place in March in Algeria. اضافة اعلان

Back in 2012, the Arab world had gone through seismic changes with the reverberations of the Arab Spring still resonating. One can safely say that the geopolitical trajectory of the region has continued to slide in a way that now gives the Arab world the lion’s share of global political and socio-economic crises even if one discounts Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, all of which with some direct or indirect connection to regional upheavals.

Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah (center right) alongside Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (center left) and the foreign ministers of Arab League states posing for a group photo during a group meeting in Kuwait City on January 30, 2022. (Photo: Kuwaiti News Agency/ AFP)

So far, it looks like the Algeria summit will not be held this March. There are so many regional hotspots and so much discord that makes Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's mission of reaching a minimum level of consensus among leaders impossible.

Discord among Arab countries is now the norm. The Arab world, a term that is now archaic and more of a euphemism, has never been so divided and polarized. Algeria itself has chronic problems with neighboring Morocco and uneasy relations with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In a bid to improve chances of convening the summit, Tebboune made a surprise visit to Cairo last week to seek President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s help to convince Arab leaders to show up at least for a photo op.

The Arab League is a ghost of what it used to be in the 1960s and ‘70s. The break-up began when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Israel in 1977. Years later, the Arab League moved back from Tunis to Cairo; signaling business as usual for the Arab countries. But the revived Arab League had become irrelevant, and for a main reason: for decades, the Palestine issue was the keystone that held the coalition together; once the Palestinian leadership decided to hold secret negotiations, first with the Americans and later with the Israelis, the consensus began to crumble.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the US occupation of Iraq more than a decade later had wounded the Arab League — some would say mortally. The tradition of Arab leaders meeting under one ceiling for less than a day has become an empty ritual. Resolutions are adopted, pledges are re-embraced and fancy preambles are written carefully but in reality member states have become weary.

The Arab world of today is nothing like that of the pre-Arab Spring era. Since 2011, the region has gone through tumultuous phases, with rulers overthrown, countries partitioned or occupied, non-state actors taking center stage and old alliances weakening.

In fact, as a group of like-minded countries, the Arab world has become immaterial. The Palestinian issue is no longer central or qualifies as a common ground anymore. Israel is now welcomed as an ally and best friend by some Arab states where a shared and immediate threat presents itself in the form of Iran.

Arab states cannot agree on key issues like the return of Syria to the Arab League, which side to back in divided Libya or in now military-ruled Sudan. They diverge on Tunisia's crisis and, more recently, on Lebanon where Iran-backed Hezbollah dictates local politics and smears Arab countries.

The Houthis in Yemen have crossed red lines by targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE while refusing any political settlement. Daesh is making a comeback in western Iraq and northeastern Syria. COVID-19 is out of control in most Arab countries. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, there are key non-Arab players who now have a say in the region’s future. Russia now has permanent military bases in Syria and Turkey is entrenched in northern Syria, while its influence extends to Libya and Qatar. Iran continues to meddle in Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Yemeni affairs.

While the Arab League is viewed as a symbol for millions of Arabs, it is sad that this symbol is in fact one of historical failures. At the popular level, there is the romantic nostalgia for Arab oneness, now mired in notoriously dysfunctional Arab League institutions. On the ground, Arab leaders feel obliged to make that one-day, once-yearly ritual. In reality, each Arab country is now fending for its own national interests. Even clusters like the logically sound GCC have been seen wanting when tested.

At one point in time, in the late 1980s, two other Arab coalitions tried to emerge alongside the GCC: the short-lived Arab Cooperation Council, comprising Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen, and the aborted Maghreb Union joining Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Arab attempts at coming together offer a dismal track record. Some countries seem to be trying their hands again at this, such as Iraq, whose prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, promotes a New Levant alongside Jordan and Egypt. Others appear to have opted for non-Arab regional alliances with Israel as the key fulcrum. With the US pivoting to the East, this approach seems to be the new norm, leaving the Arab League, at 77, as an abandoned temple.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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