Arab League battles to stave off relegation

The Arab League is often a peripheral actor and, despite its useful role in Libya, that is likely to remain the case. Published in The Gulf, March 2012

On 15 March last year, Muammar Gaddafi was showing every sign of being determined to hang on to power. With the threat of a no-fly zone being imposed by the United Nations (UN), he lashed out at his growing band of opponents.

"The Arab League is finished,” he said. “There is no such thing as the Arab League. The Gulf Co-operation Council is finished; it’s actually the Gulf Uncooperative Council".

A year later, Gaddafi is dead and buried while the Arab League is preparing for its next summit in Baghdad later this month. But although the organisation has survived, its performance has been only fitfully impressive over the past 15 months.

The league has long been criticised for being little more than a talking shop for dictators, and over the past year it has often lived up to its reputation for being weak and ineffective. It failed to make any impact on events in Tunisia, Bahrain or Egypt for example, while in Yemen it has been the Gulf countries that have taken the diplomatic lead.

However, on other occasions it has been spurred into action. This was most obvious in March 2011 when it called for a no-fly zone in Libya. That gave the UK, France and others the diplomatic cover they needed to push through a resolution in the UN Security Council which, in turn, led to the creation of a military force which ejected Gaddafi from power.

In Syria too it has tried to take a lead, imposing sanctions on the regime of president Bashar al Assad and briefly sending in a group of observers. Given the low expectations that many have for the organisation, these actions amount to a qualified success.

“The Arab League has done more than most people might previously have expected,” says David Roberts, deputy director of the Qatar office of the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank. “It sanctioned the no-fly zone in Libya which was pretty remarkable. It put monitors into Syria, although that didn’t prove particularly effective. It has recognised there are serious problems and it has tried at least to put something in place. That is an improvement.”

It is the situation in Syria which is proving to be the biggest test for the Arab League, and one that it is struggling to deal with. Damascus was suspended from the organisation on 12 November after Assad failed to implement a peace plan brokered by the league, and sanctions were imposed at the same time.

The observer mission led by Sudanese general Mohammed al Dabi was sent in the following month, but the killing continued and its work was formally halted last month. During that time, a transition plan put forward by the league in January, which involved Assad stepping down, was dismissed out of hand by Damascus.

It is hard to find much ground for optimism in all this, but even it if has failed to date, the actions may prove to have some longer-term merit. In particular, its efforts could act as a useful precedent for action in the future.

“In Syria it has managed to at least begin to form a new principle in Arab politics, which is that you can’t slaughter your own population,” says Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “It’s unable to make that stick consistently, but this is an organisation that has always operated on consensus and has always allowed states to do whatever they want within their own borders and that may be coming very unevenly to an end.”

Greater evidence of the Arab League’s impotence lies further to the east, in a crisis that it has not been involved in at all. While the rhetoric is increasing between the west and Iran over its nuclear programme, the Arab League has been all but silent.

“This is a major international crisis in which the Arab League does not seem to be all that relevant an actor,” says Brown. “Gulf security is being threatened but the major actors seem to be the Americans, the Europeans, other permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Israel. Individual Arab states are quietly active, but the Arab League as a whole just seems to be absent. This is a major failure. It is supposed to be a collective security organisation. It is certainly not providing that in the Iran crisis.”

In the Arab League’s defence, no other country or organisation has found a way to resolve the Syrian or Iranian crises either. And like any inter-governmental body, it is only as strong as its members will let it be.

One problem for the League is that its powers are weak and its decision making process so reliant on consensus. Under Article 7 of its founding charter signed in March 1945, any decisions taken by the council are only binding on those member states that wish to accept them. Given the wide range of governments across the region, from absolutist monarchies in the Gulf to democracies in Lebanon and now Tunisia, reaching a consensus is often all but impossible.

“There will always be difficulties in co-ordinating a group of 22 governments and the league has few mechanisms for follow-up,” says Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House. “The increased political diversity within the Arab world may make it increasingly difficult to build consensus, as new democracies have to sit with a variety of autocracies, including former colleagues of their old oppressors.”

The difficulty in finding common ground between all the members means that many Arab states will continue to pursue bilateral action in the future. “Qatar will do whatever is the most effective means,” says another Doha-based analyst. “Sometimes the Arab League is the most effective, sometimes bilateral methods are more effective. There is no one solution to all the problems facing the region.”

Ultimately, there is little appetite among the member states to increase the league’s powers, which mean it will be unable to become much more effective. However, there is still a role for a body that is able to draw together the countries of the region and provide a single platform through which they can voice their collective opinions, if and when they have any.

There is a growing, if not universal, consensus among the member states about the need for Assad to leave power in Syria, for example, and some tough rhetoric can be expected at the Baghdad summit later this month. While this may not on its own lead to a change, it will increase pressure on Damascus and its few remaining allies.

In the meantime, Assad himself has been criticising the Arab League in familiar ways, saying on 12 January at Damascus University that “The Arab League has been doomed for a long time.”

Whether his prediction will prove any more reliable that Gaddafi’s seems unlikely.