Arab leaders cut a sorry figure at the recently held Arab League summit meeting in Tunisia. The summit which was the 30th Arab League summit meeting since the League’s formation in Cairo in 1945 should have been an articulation of pan-Arab unity, a joint commitment to strengthening common interests between member states, and a reaffirmed commitment to the Palestinian cause. But nothing of the sort happened. Though members of the League did get together to unanimously reject and condemn U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise ‘Israeli sovereignty’ over the occupied Golan Heights, the other over dozen resolutions passed at the summit were so insipid – Iraq was praised merely for setting up a government – that exasperated commentators voiced the question that everyone has been asking for some time now. ‘Do we really need the Arab League at all?’
Questions have been hanging over the Arab League’s fate for some time now. Formed initially with euphoria as Arab nations emerged as new nation-states in the 20th century, the League soon found that their differing state interests made it almost impossible to articulate a shared vision. The one issue – the Palestinian cause – which united all members of the League was dealt a body blow in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 when the Arab nations were defeated and forced to realise that they could not defeat Israel militarily. Furthermore, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 marked the beginning of the end. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s allowance of U.S. forces in its country to fight Iraq in the first Gulf War, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, showed that the notion of pan-Arab unity was a farce.
The entry of the Americans into what was seen as an inter-Arab problem has ensured that ‘outside powers’ have since then continued to play a strong role in Arab affairs and thus influence the geo-politics of West Asia. This has come at the cost of the Arab League with the result that today other Islamic organisations such as the OIC – Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – are seen as holding more influence. The League is also undermined by the fact that Arab states are now more vigourous in taking up actions against fellow Arab countries, a case in point being Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE enforcing sanctions against Qatar. Internecine politics seems to be the order of the day here.
The most telling point though is the end of the notion of Israel as the adversary for Arab nations. In 1979, Egypt was banned from the League for some time for its peace accord with Israel. Today, Saudi Arabia is all too happy to flaunt its relationship, albeit carefully, with the Jewish nation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman showcased the changed scenario when he stated in an interview in 2018, ‘I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.’ The Crown Prince and the Kingdom’s acceptance and endorsement of Israel’s rights to live in the disputed territory suggests that the Arab struggle for Palestine is all but over despite the rhetoric at Tunis.
One could argue that such a scenario would eventually have happened anyway given the weak track record of the Arab League. Still given the crises the Arab world is faced with such as the ongoing civil war in Syria, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, the crisis in Libya etc. it was reasonable to assume that a reassertion of Arab identity and some bid to address these issues would be made at the Tunis summit. Instead, all we got was empty rhetoric which summed up the divide between member states.
The divide is so large that today the next ‘Great Game’ between Russia and the U.S. is being conducted in West Asia with the active connivance of certain Arab nation states. The ongoing civil war in Syria is a case in point while Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also reached out to Moscow for increased oil co-operation to the dismay of Iran and other OPEC nations such as Algeria, Angola, Iraq and Nigeria who believe that such moves would ensure that Moscow and Riyadh will dominate decision making on oil production. It is also telling that Russian sales of arms to the West Asian defence market has doubled over the last three years suggesting that not only is rivalry within the region increasing but that ‘outsiders’ are gaining a firmer foothold into West Asia.
So where does this leave Arab nations and the Arab League? Not far. The growing role of big nations in West Asia means the region will gradually have less say over its own affairs. This is reflected in the state of the Arab League whose purpose today is largely symbolic and is used to serve as a convenient platform for other nations to articulate messages of peace, friendship and other issues of importance in the non-security forum. President Xi Jinping’s recent address to the Arab League members at the headquarters in Cairo was a bid to emphasise the Sino-Arab strategic partnership and push home the advantages of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the Arabs. On India’s side, India has repeatedly engaged with representatives of the Arab League nations as part of its balancing act policy in West Asia, an initiative that becomes all the more important given the country’s growing proximity to Israel. In this way, the Arab League remains relevant to other nations though it remains a toothless tiger when it comes to securing collective Arab interests.