The Arab League is Useless. Abolish It

The Arab League gives the political impression of unity while sweeping real problems under the rug.

Nabil Elaraby and Hillary Clinton, the secretary general of the Arab Leagues and American secretary of state at the time, attend a meeting of the Friends of Syria in New York, September 28, 2012
Nabil Elaraby and Hillary Clinton, the secretary general of the Arab Leagues and American secretary of state at the time, attend a meeting of the Friends of Syria in New York, September 28, 2012 (France Diplomatie/Martin Loper)

International organizations get a bad rap these days; the EU gets knocked about by nationalists and the UN gets slammed for feckless dithering. But you’d be hard pressed to find a international more useless, more pointless and less effective than the Arab League. It’s done little for its storied history and given salve to those who seek conflict. It’s time to get rid of the damned thing.

The short, sad story of the Arab League: from puppet to pointless

The Arab League began out of British necessity: as World War II raged, Britain sought a single Arab authority to coordinate its imperial interests in the Arab world. Britain helped foster the formation of the league in 1945 after the Alexandria Protocol was signed. The first nations to join were either outright colonies or rather close to them: Egypt, Transjordan and Iraq were all well within British influence while Syria and Lebanon were firmly French colonies.

The British of 1945 were certainly not interested in using the league as a vehicle of pan-Arabism or decolonization. Rather, it was a nice club that would let London dictate its needs to the Arab world.

But British failures in Palestine in 1948 and Egypt over Suez in 1956 led the league to try on britches bigger than its geopolitical legs. Led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the league became pan-Arabist in tone and goal throughout the 1950s, gathering up new decolonized states like Libya, Tunisia and Algeria.

The league was virulently anti-Israel as well as anti-colonial. It tried to lead the war on Israel in 1948, falling flat on its face as Egypt and Transjordan pursued their own interests and Israel won battlefield victories.

Unable to form a proper military bloc, the league was content to denounce Israel instead and try to cajole members to attack the Zionist state.

This was the league’s primary function for the twentieth century century: issuing anti-Israeli proclamations while failing to address any substantiative Arab issues. It tried and failed to stop Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait. It tried and failed to halt the Syrian civil war in 2011. Beyond noise, the league barely deserves a Wikipedia page.

Which brings us to why it should be abolished: it cannot do any of its stated goals

If the league is around to militarily restore Palestine, well, good luck with that: Israel is secure behind dual treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an alliance with the United States. The former means proper invasion is virtually impossible, the latter guarantees that any invasion would fail anyway.

If it means to save Palestine by means of diplomacy, the odds aren’t much better. Egypt and Jordan long ago concluded that further struggle against Israel served only to destabilize themselves; their peace treaties remove the strongest diplomatic pressure points the league has.

Of the other major members, only Saudi Arabia has some diplomatic pull, leading as it does the far more effective Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf states. Virtually everyone else is too far away or too weak to make any difference: North Africa’s states are too far away while nearby Syria and Lebanon are obviously too dysfunctional to matter.

If the Arab League exists to prepare the Arab world for economic and political unification, that’s equally a dead letter. Pan-Arabism officially died after the Gulf War in 1991. When it suits them, Arab states war with one another. Even now Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are using Libya as an ideological proving ground while Saudi Arabia’s war on its fellow Arabs in Yemen reveals further splits.

Syria, of course, has long since cannibalized itself while attempts to bring new blood into the far more effective GCC in 2011 by adding Morocco and Jordan failed. Arab unity, in other words, is fiction: Iraqi interests are far removed from Oman’s, which has almost nothing in common with Algeria.

But if it does nothing, what’s the harm?

Primarily, the Arab League has given the political impression of unity while sweeping real problems under the rug. It has forestalled Arab political development by appearing to be active while it has disenchanted Arab citizens with their own governments. Every failure of the Arab League is a failure of the Arab world writ large, further undermining fragile states. States, after all, don’t collapse when people believe in them.

Lost in the propaganda of the league are real solutions and real conversations that must happen if the Arab world is to overcome its many challenges. The Arab world must establish a new relationship between mosque and state; it must come to terms with both Iran and Israel; it must decide a pace for political modernization that each country can handle. None of that is happening when the League gathers to dust off old slogans and pointless rhetoric.

But to replace it with what? To this, we should look at the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Cooperation Council as political models

The former is the only successful Arab federation in history: it has united seven royal families under one dominant, central leader in Abu Dhabi. The factors that led up to it should point to further successful integration of Arab states.

First, to federate Arab states and have it stick, the states in question must have a dominant power and a weaker one: equals will invariably break up, as Egypt and Syria did after they tried to federate in the short-lived United Arab Republic. Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth dominates the UAE’s government and economy. To secede is to doom any of the other emirates.

The Arab world is not like Europe, where the EU is underpinned by the roughly equal power of France and Germany. Both Paris and Berlin learned after World War II they could not overcome the other and have instead focused on cooperation. It’s helped the Americans have more or less forced the situation on them through NATO.

The Arab world, on the other hand, has no such central anchors that must cooperate or die. Only Saudi Arabia has the ability to force project beyond its borders. So too potentially does Egypt, though it hasn’t done so in years. Even so, that power is relatively weak: Arab countries are very good at running insurgencies but not very good at conquering one another. A situation like the Franco-Berlin axis that helps unite Europe is not in the offing. Arab states just don’t have the power to cause the same level of harm.

Moreover, the United States is not as interested in the Arab world as it is in Europe. American power is permanently deployed in Europe; in the Arab world, it’s circumstantial. The Americans would prefer to let their Middle Eastern allies sort their affairs in the Arab world; in Europe, they know from history they cannot trust Europeans not to revert to old habits should they leave. Should the Islamic State fall and Sunni supremacism disappear, the US would almost wholly withdraw from the region. That is not the case in Europe, regardless of its ideological makeup. So if the Arab League is meant to help the Americans unify the region, it’s a false hope: the US is not interested in Arab unification the way it is with European unity.

But the UAE was also a ready-to-go Arab federation. Decades of British rule combined with a few centuries of tribal settlement meant the seven royal families had a great deal in common culturally and politically.

Ironically, the only Arab states that meet the cultural and political similarity tick boxes are Lebanon and Syria: diverse, dysfunctional and a history of civil conflict. But their deep dysfunctions probably prevent any federation from taking place.

Nowhere in the Arab world does that alignment occur. Algeria and Tunisia? Algeria is an authoritarian republic; Tunisia has a functioning democracy. Egypt and Libya? Libya is split between eastern, western and interior factions, speaks its own dialect and doubtless would resist Egyptian-style centralization of power. Iraq and Jordan? Jordan has no Shia and Iraq has no king. Oman and Saudi Arabia? Oman is Ibadi Muslim and far more outward-looking. Even Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are both ruled by Wahhabi monarchies, split on the question of modernization: Qataris have been must faster to embrace twenty-first-century norms.

So if federation is a dead letter, what about an Arab EU?

We do have a working model for that — the Gulf Cooperation Council. But the failure to bring Morocco and Jordan into the fold showed the limits of even that organization.

The GCC works because it is anchored by a big power, Saudi Arabia, that the little powers must keep content. This is key to its success: the GCC is, essentially, a Saudi proto-empire, allowing Saudi imperial interests to be expressed through its proxies along its borders in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. Saudi Arabia’s concern about a rising Iran are therefore the concerns of its proxies.

The GCC is playing with the notion of standardized taxes, currency and even a political union. Yet there are plenty of hindrances. First and foremost, the small states of the GCC have an even bigger ally should push ever come to shove with Saudi Arabia.

The US still has bases in every GCC country but Saudi Arabia. These bases guarantee that no ambitious Saudi king can force these little states into the Saudi fold. While the US is not in the Persian Gulf to contain Saudi aggression as of now, that could well become the case in the future as Saudi Arabia resorts to more and more desperate measures to shore up the kingdom.

Like the EU, the progression of the GCC occurs only at a pace that does not threaten the United States. Currencies unions and custom markets are all well and good: unification is not. It helps that most GCC states don’t want to become part of some Saudi-led Greater Arabia. Oman made that blatantly clear the last time the subject came up.

That all being said, no league, and no pan-Arabist project, is still the better alternative

So long as the Arab League functions, it will give stagnant political thought a home in the Arab world. It will forestall necessary conversations that will stabilize the Arab world while failing to do much beyond provide employment for those who work its offices. It was a puppet to begin with; now it’s outright harmful. The Arab world will be better off minus it. Best to ditch it as soon as possible.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 3, 2016.

Leave a reply