Over its 75-year history, the 22-member League of Arab States (LAS) has declined as an organization—from one that represents and pushes for collective, purposeful, and effective Arab action to a mere façade of ineffectual institutions that reflect the prevalent disunity in the Arab world. In its early years, the Arab League represented an attempt by newly independent Arab states to form an entente following the Second World War, one that would speak on behalf of Arab masses emerging from decades of subjugation by foreign powers. But it quickly fell victim to the ideologies of different Arab state elites who pursued their interests and sowed the seeds of discord. Such disunity has limited the League’s ability to represent the interests of over 400 million Arabs regionally and internationally. It has also deprived them of effective participation in decisions on global issues that affect them and their future.
As the organizational representative of 22 Arab states, the LAS today presides over a series of crises in and between its different members; however, it appears to be totally incapable of addressing these challenges. In fact, the occasions have been rare when the Arab League succeeded in resolving a crisis. It presently exhibits a complete inability to deal with active civil wars––such as those in Yemen, Syria, or Libya––or with simmering disputes such as the Gulf Cooperation Council Crisis of 2017. It cannot be counted on to represent the wishes of millions of Arabs in necessary and serious political and economic reforms in their countries. Finally, the Arab League’s record indicates that it is incapable of persuading some Arab governments to end their normalization with Israel––the state that has long deprived Palestinians of their legitimate national and human rights––or of insisting on implementing the Arab Peace Initiative that was launched under the League of Arab States’ name in 2002.
Presented below are perspectives on different aspects of the Arab League’s current policies and positions. They are offered by Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) analysts and affiliated experts.
Institutional Failures of the Arab League
Abdulwahab Al-Qassab, Visiting Scholar, ACW
The LAS was created on March 22, 1945 by six founding members: Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. Yemen joined the following May. Then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Said was instrumental in its creation and his dynamism and connections made it possible.
The Arab League’s original weakness came from its charter, which stipulates that only those countries approving its resolutions are bound by them. This lack of conditionality regarding commitment to common action has been at the heart of the League’s ineffectiveness. Following the failure of the Arab states in their war with Israel in 1948, LAS members approved two agreements for common defense and economic cooperation. But these were never properly implemented, which has led to weakening joint Arab action over the years. The addition of new members during the subsequent four decades did not change this reality, although all 22 members are committed to the League’s charter and the two aforementioned agreements.
There are important milestones in the history of the Arab League, such as the founding of the Arab Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (AOPEC) in 1968 and the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) in 1970. Both have contributed to improving common development in the Arab world because of their technical nature and the absence of political considerations. On the other hand, those organizations that emerged as a result of joint economic and defense efforts failed miserably because of the political overtones and unilateralism that have pervaded them.
The LAS saw much activism under the leadership of its late Secretary General Mahmoud Riad (1972-1979); but that ended with President Anwar Sadat’s signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, after which Egypt’s membership was suspended and the League’s headquarters were moved to Tunis. One important breakdown came a little later when the LAS was unable to find a peaceful Arab resolution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Instead, a razor-thin majority of members approved a resolution calling on the United States to intervene militarily to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
On several occasions, the Arabs have been able to agree on establishing mechanisms for joint action, which could have made the League similar to the European Union. But individualism has always stymied collectivism and unity, in the process weakening the Arab League and calling its existence into question.
The Demise of the Arab League: A Sense of Déjà Vu
Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director, ACW
Regional organizations like the League of Arab States, the African Union, the Union of South American Nations, and other similar international organizations are political entities established to enhance the political, economic, and social interests of their member states and their geographical regions. The legitimacy and durability of such entities are usually a function of their relative success in realizing their main mission and principal objectives to the satisfaction of most of their members. Therefore, these organizations have often faced existential challenges stemming from habitual failures and shortcomings. The LAS is not an exception to this rule. Since its inception in 1945, numerous public appeals have been made urging the dismantlement of the organization because of repeated failures to serve the diverse interests of its current 22 members in conflicts involving Libya, Syria, Yemen, and others.
The Arab League has historically granted Palestine a special status to participate in its deliberations and treated its right to independence and statehood as a constant feature of the League’s structure, modus operandi, and political platform. This commitment has wavered from time to time, culminating in the organization’s recent refusal on September 9, 2020, to condemn the decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalize relations with Israel, as proposed by the Palestinian delegation. The resulting political rift, coupled with rumors of additional Arab countries following in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps, led the State of Palestine to relinquish its chairmanship of the current round of LAS meetings, in a symbolic protest gesture short of totally withdrawing its membership in the League. This was followed by Qatar, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, and Comoros.
Frankly, this is not the first instance that the Arab League has failed to honor its own long-term commitments to Palestine. However, the decision by several member states, spearheaded by the UAE and Bahrain, to openly pursue normalization and strategic alliance with Israel presents the Palestinians with an existential challenge, even in light of the repeated assertions by these states that they remain firm in their support of Palestinian statehood despite their deal with Israel. This challenge clearly exceeds past betrayals of Palestinian rights both in terms of substance and magnitude. The cohesion and effectiveness of the League have always been subject to criticism and debate; however, by abdicating its common commitment to the core issue of Palestine, the LAS has obviously lost its raison d’être. This does merit a serious assessment by the Palestinians, including considering the option of permanent withdrawal from the spurious club.
Palestine at the Arab League Summit in September 2020
Tamara Kharroub, Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow, ACW
The 2020 Arab League summit was a clear blow to the Palestinians. In a virtual session on September 9, the organization voted down a draft resolution that would condemn the UAE-Israel deal for normalization of relations between the two countries. The blow came earlier, immediately after the news of the UAE’s intention to normalize relations, when a request by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for an emergency meeting to discuss the “dangers” of normalization was rejected by the Arab League.
The Arab states and the PA agreed, however, to include language in a final statement that emphasizes the Arab Peace Initiative, the two-state solution, and the land-for-peace principle. But the refusal to provide a clear denunciation of the normalization deal presents a clear shift in Arab policy regarding Palestine and in the Arab states’ geopolitical priorities. In fact, several countries supported the deal, and according to sources some Arab foreign ministers even attempted to include provisions that legitimized it.
The move stands in direct contradiction to the Arab Peace Initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002, 2007, and in 2017. This Saudi-led initiative conditions normalizing relations between the Arab world and Israel on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories, a “just settlement” for the Palestinian refugees based on UN Resolution 194, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Arab League has essentially sanctioned abandoning those demands in exchange for temporary suspension of de jure annexation, knowing full well that de facto annexation is ongoing. The PA accused the UAE of violating the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative.
In the larger scheme of things, the inability to condemn the deal lies in each country’s individual political and economic agendas and dependence on the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Nonetheless, it serves to embolden Israel and the United States in their total exclusion and neglect of Palestinians and their rights, paves the way for future normalization deals, furthers the marginalization of Palestinians by the Arab states, and will likely lead to the dissolution of the Arab Peace Initiative. A case in point is the fact that the State of Palestine decided to give up its right to the chairmanship of the Arab League in opposition to these recent developments, and that this act did not seem to make any difference.
The Arab League and the Libya Crisis
Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis, ACW
One of the most consequential decisions by the League of Arab States regarding Libya was taken in the spring of 2011 when it provided Arab cover for UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorized NATO’s military intervention against the forces of Muammar Qadhafi. In March of that year and following contentious discussions in the League (there was vociferous opposition from Syria and Algeria), then-Secretary-General Amr Moussa asked the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The decision by the Arab League was preceded a few days earlier by one in the Gulf Cooperation Council––at the time the most cohesive and significant collection of states––that prompted the larger League to act.
The goal was to prevent Qadhafi from deploying his armed forces against peaceful protesters who were demanding political change. The international community, led by the United States and European countries, needed the political cover of the Arab League to intervene in an Arab country whose leader was in fact threatening genocide against his own people. Once Resolution 1973 was approved, Qatar and the UAE sent in their own war planes to participate alongside NATO members in enforcing the no-fly zone. During the previous February, the Arab League had suspended the Libyan government’s membership and recognized the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the Libyan people’s representative.
But that early moment of concord on Libya quickly dissipated after Qadhafi was killed by rebels in October 2011. Political calculations in the GCC and LAS began to shift as accompanying changes were taking place on the ground in Libya and in neighboring Egypt––which also saw the collapse of the pro-GCC Mubarak regime––thus facilitating the rise of political Islam in Cairo. While Qatar sought to assist Islamist forces and militias in Tripoli, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia began to seek out secular Libyan allies in the NTC. This accompanied their efforts to help mount a challenge to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that, in 2012, won the parliamentary and presidential elections. Eventually, these efforts led to the July 2013 coup that brought General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power. Soon in 2014, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh began to support a former officer in the Libyan armed forces, Khalifa Haftar, who remains an important player in Libya’s political crisis.
Division within the League affected its cohesiveness and ability to help Libya’s political transition, which it declared must be through negotiations and peaceful. The LAS supported the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco in 2015, that gave birth to the current Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli—which General Haftar has attempted to topple with the assistance of the UAE and Egypt. Last June, Egypt called for a meeting of the League’s foreign ministers, who subsequently condemned foreign interference in Libya’s affairs, specifically by Turkey (which supports the GNA). Importantly, the meeting was held without consulting the GNA, which boycotted it. No mention was made of the direct interference by the UAE and Egypt––in addition to that by Russia and France––in support of General Haftar. In essence, divisions within the League have been at the heart of its failure to assist a member country such as Libya to accomplish the political stability its people so desperately deserve.
The Arab League and the Syrian Conflict
Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow, ACW
Months after the eruption of protests against the Syrian regime in March 2011, the Arab League sent an observer mission to Syria to investigate reports of widespread violence against civilians. The mission was headed by the former head of Sudan’s intelligence service, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, who appeared to whitewash the regime’s atrocities by denying what were clear violations of human rights. Dabi’s delegation was short-lived and its final report received widespread criticism.
In November 2011, under pressure mainly from Gulf countries, the LAS suspended Syria’s membership in its institutions and imposed political and economic sanctions on the Syrian regime. Arab states were asked to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus. Lebanon and Yemen voted against the decision while Iraq abstained.
The Arab League, in cooperation with the United Nations, then chose former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to be a mediator in Syria. His mission only lasted for six months. He was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi, who was considered to be a UN envoy only because the Syrian government refused to accept him as a representative of the Arab League. His mission lasted for less two years and was as fruitless as that of Annan. It is safe to assume that since 2012, following the failure of Annan’s mission, the Arab League has been largely missing from Syria because of the dominant Russian role in the country and the near absence of the United States.
In 2018, when President Donald Trump announced that countries in the region should shoulder the cost of fighting the Islamic State, there was some discussion about the participation of Arab forces in maintaining peace in eastern Syria. At the time, Saudi Arabia expressed its willingness to send troops to Syria, but only under an international umbrella. The main obstacle in that endeavor was the bad example set by Arab peacekeeping forces that were sent to Lebanon in 1976 to monitor security in that country. As is well known, that force was composed mainly of Syrian troops who stayed until 2005, when they withdrew under American and international pressure following the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
To be sure, the Arab League’s role in the Syrian conflict has been practically ineffectual. This was exacerbated by the division and discord in the GCC since 2017. In fact, the League became paralyzed following the appointment of former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as its secretary general. Many view the organization now as an appendage of the Egyptian foreign ministry, one that works toward realizing Egyptian interests in the Arab world and the region.
The Arab League’s Abdication in the Yemen Crisis
Nabeel Khoury, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (under Gamal Abdul-Nasser) competed for influence in the League of Arab States and in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), hence providing a counterweight to the possibility of one side dominating the organizations. In the eighties, a personal feud between Crown Prince (later King) Abdallah and Libya’s ruler Muammar Qadhafi led to a semblance of balance within the membership of the Arab League.
Now, with Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi heavily indebted to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qadhafi dead, and Libya in tatters, the LAS has become a unipolar organization dominated by Saudi Arabia and massively supported by the UAE. In 2015, with King Fahd and King Abdallah gone from the scene, the ascent of young Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince has translated into a Saudi leadership that is aggressively asserted. Therefore, and with hardly any opposition, the Arab League supported the Saudi point of view on Yemen and simultaneously agreed to the establishment of an Arab army—a force that has remained ad hoc depending on current circumstances and the inclinations of Saudi leadership. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE decided to repel the Houthis from Sanaa, they formed the Arab coalition, a use of force that went unopposed in the League and, at first, included participation from Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco—all states with major military organizations and effectiveness. These three later opted out of the coalition, at least in terms of sending ground troops, but continued to support the war effort verbally and lent it some air assistance.
Five years into a seemingly endless war, the Arab League has yet to assert any independence by way of at least suggesting—let alone leading—a mediation effort to end the war in Yemen. Recent statements from both the LAS and the OIC have merely echoed the Saudi point of view, blaming Iran for the continued violence and the Houthis for continued attacks, as in the recent Houthi advances in Marib. In a recent meeting between LAS Secretary General Aboul-Gheit with Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, the former talked about the need for a political settlement in Yemen. Indeed, Arab League actions have not amounted to more than a listing of opportunities for humanitarian assistance to Yemen with occasional calls encouraging donations for that purpose. The tragedy in Yemen, declared by the United Nations to be the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, is a scathing indictment of the Arab League, an organization whose purpose was to debate and mitigate crises in the region and offer assistance in conflict resolution.
The Arab League Has No Influence in Yemen
Sheila Carapico, Professor of Political Science and Global Studies, University of Richmond
Yemen’s relationship to the Arab League and other intergovernmental bodies is in limbo. The internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi enjoys diplomatic relations abroad but is based in Riyadh and does not truly govern in the domestic Yemeni arena, where the Ansar Allah Party (also known as the Houthis) is effectively in charge in the capital Sanaa. Social services are a shambles. The value of the Yemeni riyal has collapsed. Destruction is widespread. Commodities including food and medicine are in short supply.
Most Arab League member states support the Saudi-backed Hadi administration, butfew Yemeni citizens inside the country do. Hadi’s term in office has long since expired, and he was never particularly popular. Therefore, there is a pronounced disconnect between legitimacy in foreign or pan-Arab circles and domestic legitimacy; the administration headed by Hadi does not credibly represent indigenous opinions or interests either in the Arab League or elsewhere.