Center for Strategic Communication

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

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.[[BREAK]]

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

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
. 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.