Spotlight

The Arab League’s Evolving Role in a Restless Middle East

November 22, 2011

By Haifa Jedea - Emerging new political realities across the Middle East and North Africa are now impacting regional organizations, particularly the Arab League, officially called the League of Arab States. The League's role in the region is clearly shifting. Since its creation in 1945, the League has grown to 21 member states and four non-Arab observer states. Its purpose is to foster close relations between the Arab states, to protect their independence and sovereignty, and to discuss relevant Arab issues.

The League's effectiveness has been in question the past few decades, as its members rarely agree on issues. When members reach consensus (as they did in their support for the Palestinian cause, for example), such agreement rarely goes beyond rhetorical declarations, with little operational effect. Arab citizens seldom felt an impact from the League's deliberations until the recent vote to impose a no-fly zone over Libya - a decision that eventually led to NATO's intervention.

The League's handling of the Libya situation is significant for two reasons. First, it proves that members of the League can reach a definitive consensus on an important political and military issue, resulting in an effective international response. Second, the League's decision lent legitimacy to NATO's intervention, inadvertently creating a new standing and position for the League. With bodies like NATO and the United Nations looking to it for guidance, the League is beginning to be taken seriously in the international arena. Post-Libya, the League is sensing the powerful role it could play in the region in the future.

In recent months, activists and civil society organizations called for the League to speak out against member governments. In October, prominent Yemeni activist and Noble Peace Prize Laureate Tawwakul Karman criticized the League for not listening "to the voices of the people" with regard to the body's quiet stance on the violence unfolding in Syria and Yemen.

The actions in Libya set a precedent for the League and created new standards for it amongst the Arab people. Citizens are beginning to look to the League to take action against member governments in order to protect them, placing the welfare of citizens ahead of ruling regimes. The dynamic between the member countries and the region's people is shifting, with the League no longer being a place where Arab leaders discuss regional issues amongst themselves in isolated boardrooms. Instead, leaders' actions are now being influenced by the people they govern, introducing democratic elements to the way in which the League makes its decisions.

Although pressure put on Syria is partly driven by the violence and the Arab public, intervening there is more delicate and complicated than the Libyan intervention. Unlike Qaddafi, Assad's fall would lead to the reshuffling of the region's political dynamics. It took more than public opinion to mobilize League members to take decisive action; its decision to suspend Syria's membership on November 12th was the result of many factors.

First, the removal of Assad means that Iran could potentially loose its main foothold in the Arab world. This shift would benefit the Sunni-majority countries that initiated the League's actions on Syria. Political motivations regarding Syria also were reflected in Lebanon's surprising vote against the suspension, as well as Iraq's strategic abstention.

Second, the League's activities bring to light Qatar's political ambitions in the region. During the Libyan uprisings, Qatar took the lead in denouncing Qaddafi, and helped drive efforts that resulted in the League's decision to suspend Syria. Most of the League's other member states were dealing with issues of their own or preferred to remain silent.  Qatar took this opportunity to demonstrate its political clout to neighboring states as well as the international community. Some may interpret Qatar's moves as a way to support Islamic governments in the region, but others attribute the role it played as an attempt to become a regional power.

A third reason for the Arab League's actions is possibly a desire to move on the Syria issue before Turkey, allowing the situation to remain under Arab control. Turkey previously tried to moderate a dialogue between the Syrian government and protestors. Comments following the League's suspension of Syria revealed it was only a matter of time before Turkey spoke up. Making a move before Turkey allows the League to keep the future of Syria within the Arab political sphere.

Finally, the new Secretary General, Nabil Al-Araby, Egyptian diplomat and legal expert, has a long history with the UN that may have played a role in the League's recent decision. The notion of intervening in another country's internal affairs to protect its citizens is a concept debated within the halls of the UN. But almost 10 years after Kofi Anan's speech on the international community's "responsibility to protect" vulnerable populations, the logic of staging such interventions is being applied by the most unexpected countries.

The League's newfound sense of determination regarding Syria reflects the standing it achieved amidst the chaotic, but encouraging, climate of the Arab uprisings. Its decision sets a new political precedent for Arab politics, the relationship between Arab countries, as well as the region's multilateral organizations. The full effects of the Arab League's actions remain to be seen, but it is clear that the League will assume an active role in regional affairs as the internal politics of member countries continue to evolve.


Photo Credit: By AlMustashriqa, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/almustashriqa/3421093046/

Written by

  • Haifa Jedea
    Former intern for the Middle East/Southwest Asia program