The Arab League at 70
The Arab League marks its 70th anniversary this month, but is there much to celebrate, asks Salah Nasrawi
It is 70 years ago this month that Arab leaders agreed to set up a political entity in the midst of a fierce struggle by their peoples for independence from the First World War colonial powers. The goal of the League of the Arab States, as this entity was officially named by its founding fathers, was to propel a united Arab world towards liberation, sovereignty and economic prosperity.
A major objective for the then seven-member organisation was also to help the Palestinians in their struggle against the Zionist Movement and its Western-backed endeavours to create a Jewish State in Palestine.
Yet, 70 years after the founding of the organisation the Arab world today is at a dangerous crossroads. Too many Arab countries are involved in armed conflicts, and political turmoil can be found across the region stretching from the Arab Gulf in the east to the Atlantic coast in the West.
Israel ended up controlling virtually the whole of Palestine after four major wars with the Arabs, leaving generations of Palestinians stateless inside their historic homeland and millions of others homeless around the world. Seven decades after the creation of the pan-Arab organisation, some 360 million Arabs remain trapped either in stagnant repression, poor governance or cycles of strife that rule out the possibility of progress.
Today, the case can be made that the League, founded on a charter to which have been added numerous agreements that have taken it from seven to 22 members, has failed to effectively and actively take the initiative, leading the Arabs facing daunting challenges and many of their countries finding themselves in a state of chaos.
Founding the League: Distinct from a project of federation, confederation or union, the Arab League was established to provide a legal and institutional framework that would bring the Arabs together and provide a platform to serve their interests.
Under its charter the main purpose of the League was to boost relations between the member states, to coordinate their policies in order to achieve cooperation between them, and to safeguard their independence and sovereignty.
However, while many Arabs hoped that the charter had laid the foundations for a strong and effective organisation, the League was ultimately a creature of the post-colonial era which divided the Arab world into separate entities. It could do only as much or as little as the Arab regimes permitted.
One of the main weaknesses of the League lies in its nature as a voluntary association of states, with members refusing to sacrifice some of their sovereignty in favour of closer integration. Its effectiveness has been further hampered by political divisions, rivalry and competition in key areas such as foreign policy and defence.
A key constraint on the Arab League system has been its tightly knit institutional structure which was based on its founding documents that gave decision-making power to the Arab regimes, many of them unelected.
According to the charter, a council composed of representatives of member states is tasked to make decisions and supervise their execution. Each state has a single vote, irrespective of the number of its representatives. This rigid and undemocratic system has made the League captive to the visions and decisions of the representatives of autocratic regimes, rather than to those of the Arab peoples and their civil societies.
A major constraint in the work of the League lies in its institutional capabilities. Its secretary-general and bureaucracy are considered to be “employees” who do not initiate plans or make decisions. The League lacks mechanisms to compel member states to comply with its resolutions, a void that has made it unable to function effectively.
Recognising the need for a more systematic approach in order to ensure the League’s role as a pan-Arab organisation that safeguards the Arab peoples’ interests, several attempts have been made to reform the system to enable the organisation to function more effectively. The current secretary-general, Nabil Al-Araby, has called for institutional reforms to revive the organisation, including of its structure, economic cooperation and citizen participation.
Al-Araby, a former Egyptian foreign minister and international lawyer, has repeatedly blamed the League’s failure on its member states, which he has accused of making its decisions and forging its policies and not the League’s secretariat. His main proposal has been to amend to organisation’s charter, described as being “unsuitable” to meet the challenges faced by the Arab world today.
A committee formed by Al-Araby to make recommendations for reforming the League is expected to submit its report to the Arab Summit in Egypt later this month.
One area where the League has been seen to have failed is in its attempts to help the Palestinians achieve their own independent state. From the outset, the League failed in its attempts to prevent the creation of Israel when a coalition of Arab armies fighting under the League’s military command lost the 1948 War. Subsequent wars and peace overtures have failed to bring a just solution to the problem.
The consequences have been devastating. The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a catalyst for wars and struggles that have exacerbated regional instability and added political challenges to existing economic and other hardships.
Inter-Arab disputes, whether border disputes or power and influence struggles, have also prevented closer cooperation in the political, military and economic spheres, contributing to regional instability and creating more conflicts.
The invasion of Kuwait carried out by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1990, for example, acted as the catalyst for a polarisation that split the Arab world, opening the door to foreign interference that deepened divisions and mistrust between the Arab countries.
A poor harvest: One of the League’s notable failures has been in the field of the economy. According to its charter, the organisation is tasked with coordinating economic cooperation between its member states with the aim of an integrated Arab market.
At its outset the League set up specialised agencies to promote cooperation in the fields of telecommunications, postal services and finance. Later, it established the Arab Common Market in 1965 to provide for the eventual abolition of customs duties on natural resources and agricultural products, the free movement of capital and labour among member states, and coordination of economic development.
But this never happened, and by 2014 inter-Arab trade did not exceed 10 per cent of member state trade volumes, with the rest mostly going to international partners such as China, Japan, the European Union and the United States.
The Arab countries sit atop perhaps half the world’s oil and a third of its natural gas reserves, yet the economies of the region are among the most stagnant in the world because of a lack of sufficient capital. Hundreds of billions of dollars in hydrocarbon wealth from the Arab Gulf countries have been kept in foreign banks instead of being used for badly needed investment in poor or lower-income Arab countries.
Sovereign wealth funds belonging to the Gulf countries were estimated to contain about $5.6 trillion at the end of 2013. They have become key players in world markets, but they are scarcely used for investment purposes in the Arab world.
Overall, economic growth in the Arab countries remains weak. According to the International Monetary Fund, growth in per capita income among the Arab countries has lagged far behind Asia, Latin America and Africa during the past 30 years, and even major oil powers such as Saudi Arabia have fallen behind.
In its 2009 Arab Human Development Report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) found that, as of 2007, the Arab states as a whole were less industrialised than they were in 1970, with governments using revenues from oil, gas and other outside receipts to sustain unproductive economies that maintain large public sectors and import foreign goods.
In addition, mismanagement, corruption and the dependency of ruling cliques on foreign powers have remained key reasons behind this poor economic record. Economic growth rates have been consistently too low to keep pace with population growth, and most of the Arab countries remain deadlocked and struggling to make ends meet.
Unemployment, particularly among young people and women, remains high, and the size of government is staggering. In its Fourth Unemployment Report, released in September 2014, the Arab Labour Organisation disclosed that unemployment in the Arab world had risen from 14 per cent in 2008 to 16 per cent in 2013.
The phenomenon that helps to exacerbate this problem is the lack of a common regional labour market that would allow nationals of the Arab countries to be able freely to take up employment and settle in other Arab countries. The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are the largest recipients of migrants in the world and host some 16 million workers, but the majority of these are not Arabs.
As a result, Arab economic integration has turned into a ghost of what it could have been, and the Arab League has failed to achieve the minimal goals of the “joint Arab action” wanted by the League’s founders and promoters.
Another dismal shortfall has been in the field of knowledge. Statistics on knowledge indicators such as spending on science, technology and innovation have revealed Arab deficiencies on a major scale. According to the “Overview of the Knowledge Economy in the Arab Region,” written by experts at the United Nations University, the “Arab region is lagging far behind the comparable range of the other world regions and advanced countries, and even behind those of the developing countries.”
Of the top 500 educational institutions in the world, only five are based in the Arab world. In its Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014 (ARWU), the Institute of Higher Education of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) rated two Saudi and one Egyptian university among the 150 to 500 of its top 500 research universities worldwide.
In comparison, Israel has six entries in the top-500 university list, including three among the top 100.
Scientific and university-based research critical to the economic and social development of Arab societies has never been a priority for most Arab governments. The first Arab Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, or STI, was signed just last year. It remains to be seen if Arab scientists will be able to overcome political and other hurdles and create showcases in their fields.
Several world development and governance indicators also show the Arab world to be in a horrible state of regression. Nine Arab countries came among the 50 fragile states worldwide, according to the Foreign Policy Index of Fragile States for 2014. The 2014 Corruption Perception Index also ranked seven Arab countries among the most corrupt in its 174-country list.
However, Arab countries top the list of the World Happiness Report 2013, which provides critical data on how the world measures economic and social development.
At the edge: The dramatic events that have been unfolding across the Arab world since 2003 are seen by many as being apocalyptic and the result of a collective failure by the Arab countries to advance the Arabs’ political, economic and security goals.
Across the Arab world, countries that were once strategic pillars of the Arab political order are now unravelling, and the whole region seems to be heading towards a massive geopolitical shift that will have far-reaching consequences. The magnitude of the changes that are taking place could barely have been imagined some years ago even by the most pessimistic of Arab world observers.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and its capture of large chunks of land in Syria and Iraq and proclamation of an “Islamic caliphate” has been a turning point. The group has abolished the borders drawn at the creation of two modern Arab states and raised its black banners over areas stretching from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean.
The war front against terror goes beyond the territory IS has captured in Syria and Iraq, however. Numerous terror groups from Egypt, Algeria, Libya and other countries have now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and operate in unstable areas like Derna in eastern Libya and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.
Civil wars are raging in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, while several other Arab countries have been wracked by communal divisions and political uncertainty. In Iraq and Syria the chances are slim that the two countries will remain intact even if IS is defeated. Kurds in both countries are moving toward self-rule, while Sunnis are resisting Shia and Alawite domination.
In Libya, the popular uprising against the former regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has now evolved into a war that could tear the country to pieces. While a civil war is raging in many parts of the country, some parts of eastern Libya have declared their autonomy. The Tuareg tribes in the south are looking for closer bonds with neighbouring countries.
Yemen has entered a turbulent era as Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels now control much of the country after an uprising in September that has deepened divisions among tribal, sectarian and provincial communities fighting over the sharing of wealth and power. A federal system proposed by a UN-led national dialogue following the overthrow of the country’s long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh is in tatters, with southern Yemen now pressing to break away from the north.
Elsewhere, the Arab countries are suffering from the repercussions of regional wars and do not seem to be immune from the ripple effects of Middle East balkanisation. With sectarian strife escalating all around them, governments and large segments of the populations fear that they might be the next ones to be hit by the turmoil.
It has never been plain sailing, but 70 years after the establishment of the League that was intended to safeguard its security and interests, the Arab world now seems to be heading towards a tectonic shift that could redefine its political landscape and century-old national borders. Such changes may take time, but if the momentum continues there will be no Arab world like the one we have known for the past seven decades in a few years.
In many ways, the new political map and the new regional order it will create will be a major setback and an invitation to transform the admittedly imperfect existing order into a chaos in which ethno- and sectarian-based new countries will be pitted against each other.
If the Arab world were to fall apart and be remapped in this manner, it would in many ways be the result of the failure of the Arab League to establish a political order, a security system and a common market that serves Arab interests.
Above all, the League has been unable to give the citizens of its member states an Arab identity alongside the national identities that preserve the region’s diversity. Unlike the citizens of the European Union who can see identity markers in the EU flag, the single currency and the free movement of goods, people, capital and services, the overwhelming majority of Arabs can see nothing of that sort when they look at the region.
Instead, in many cases Arab governments perceive Arab integration to be a threat to national identity.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on March 19, 2015