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The Arab League

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
Updated: January 26, 2012
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Founded in March 1945, the League of Arab States (or Arab League) is a loose confederation of twenty-two Arab nations, including Palestine, whose broad mission is to improve coordination among its members on matters of common interest while preserving the sovereignty of its individual states. The League was chartered in response to concerns about postwar colonial divisions of territory as well as strong opposition to the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. But it has long been criticized for ineffectiveness, disunity, and poor governance. Critics also say it has traditionally been more representative of its various autocratic regimes than of Arab citizens.


A push for Palestinian statehood at the UN and unrest across the Arab world in 2011 and 2012 have presented the Arab League with fresh tests of relevance. Some critics see positive developments in the League's actions in Libya, where it supported a no-fly zone and the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and in Syria, where it has called for President Bashar al-Assad (WashPost) to step down after months of bloody crackdown. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution says the Libya precedent shows the Arab League does have a role to play. "Before that," he adds, "No one was really sure what its raison d'être was. Now there is a need for a collective body to address the various changes that are going on in the region."

A League of Their Own

According to its charter, the founding members of the Arab League (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Yemen) agreed to seek "close cooperation" on matters of economics, communication, culture, nationality, social welfare, and health. They renounced violence for the settlement of conflicts between members and empowered League offices to mediate in such disputes, as well as in those with non-members. Signatories agreed to collaborate in military affairs; this accord was strengthened with a 1950 pact committing members to treat acts of aggression on any member state as an act against all.

The charter established Arab League headquarters in Cairo, created a permanent General Secretariat (a position traditionally appointed to an Egyptian [AP]), and scheduled sessions to meet biannually, or at the request of two members in extraordinary circumstances. A formal commitment to international human rights law only entered League conventions in 2004 (ratified in 2008) when some members adopted the Arab Charter on Human Rights.

The charter has a separate annex on the issue of Palestine. It affirms Palestinian independence and states that "even though the outward signs of this independence have remained veiled as a result of force majeure," an Arab delegate from Palestine should "participate in its [the League's] work until this country enjoys actual independence." In his 1996 book Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Charles D. Smith writes, "With this machinery in place, the League . . . undertook to represent the Palestinian Arab case before the Western world and to seek to persuade the [super] powers to deny the achievement of Zionist goals."

The Arab League has no mechanism to compel members' compliance with its resolutions, a void that has led critics like CFR's Mohamad Bazzi to describe the organization as a "glorified debating society." The charter states that decisions reached by a majority "shall bind only those [states] that accept them," which places a premium on national sovereignty and undercuts the League's ability to take collective action. Some actions are taken under the aegis of the Arab League, but executed only by a small faction. Bazzi says, "During the Lebanese civil war, the Arab League had limited success trying to help negotiate a peace, but in the end it was the individual powers, in this case Syria and Saudi Arabia, that helped end the conflict by convening the Taif Agreement. Technically it was under League auspices, but it was really Saudi Arabia and Syria as the driving force."

A Pan-Arab Pedigree

The concept of an integrated Arab polity based on shared culture and historical experience, which is at the heart of the Arab League's charter, dates to the Islamic caliphates under the disciples of Mohammed. Modern pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism, arose in opposition to Ottoman rule and nineteenth-century attempts to impose the Turkic language and culture on Arab subjects. During World War I, the Sharif of Mecca led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans in concert with British forces. The British government assured Arabs their support would be rewarded with the establishment of an independent state. However, a separate Anglo-French accord signed in 1916, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, betrayed this plan and carved up the Arab lands into respective spheres of influence.

During World War II, the British once again pledged "full support" for Arab unity. This policy was expressed by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in his Mansion House speech in May 1941. Encouraged by the news, Arab leaders embarked on negotiations for a pan-Arab union that would bolster support for the Arabs of Palestine. The process culminated in 1944 with the Alexandria Protocol, the document that laid plans for the Arab League. In 1948, five nations of the newly formed regional body took up arms against the state of Israel following its declaration of independence. The conflict marked the first major action of the League and the first of several bloody conflicts between Arab and Israeli forces over the future of Palestine.

The decline of British and French colonial empires and the emergence of a bipolar Cold War altered the architecture of power in the region. Inter-Arab antagonisms, the strategic implications of Mideast oil, and a U.S. policy of Soviet containment provided ample seeds of conflict for the newly formed League.

The resulting Arab defeat, known as the Nakba or "catastrophe," became a defining moment. Smith writes, "Many, especially of the younger generation, saw Israel's existence as symbolic of Arab humiliation at the hands of a superior power relying on Western technology that they were denied. Here there existed a desire for revenge coupled with the fear of Israeli military might and possible future expansion."

The Palestinian issue continues to be a catalyst for collective Arab action. The League emphasized the importance of the Palestinian cause in 1964 with the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Order, whose charter states "the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty." Following another significant defeat by the Israelis in 1967, the League issued the Khartoum Resolution, often remembered for its three "no's": "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it."

Still, policies toward the Jewish nation did not develop uniformly. These postures, as well as relations with one another, were shaped by factors including individual territorial ambitions, evolving Cold War alliances, and inter-Arab rivalries.

Seeds of Conflict

After WWII, the pan-Arab project gained perhaps its most charismatic champion in Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, but several critical international developments over the following decades exposed the limits of League solidarity. The decline of British and French colonial empires and the emergence of a bipolar Cold War altered the architecture of power in the region. Inter-Arab antagonisms, the strategic implications of Mideast oil, and a U.S. policy of Soviet containment provided ample seeds of conflict for the newly formed League.

Under Nasser's leadership, Arab nationalism reached new heights. Nasser's assent to power in 1952, the first military coup in the Arab world, was seen as a victory against Western imperialism and an inspiration to other Arab states. Still, the pan-Arabism project suffered several setbacks under his reign. The brief political union of Egypt and Syria, known as the United Arab Republic, fell apart after only three years (1958-1961). The outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 1962 deteriorated into a disastrous eight-year proxy battle between Egyptian and Saudi-backed forces. Even Palestine proved to be a source of contention as Arab League members vied to assert control over the PLO, founded in 1964. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael Scott Doran says, "Arab politics were more chaotic than at any point in modern history. Nasser's revolution promised unity--but delivered fragmentation and discord."

Perhaps the most pivotal event of the period was Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. The resulting crisis, while perceived as a victory for Nasser in the Arab world, convinced the Eisenhower administration to pursue a proactive role in the Middle East, and primed the region for Cold War polarization. Washington provided economic and military assistance, primarily to Israel, to counter the similar flows of Soviet assistance to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. This arms race culminated in the Six-Day War (1967), a defeat for Arab armies that included the Israeli occupation of the remnants of Arab Palestine.

"The short-term prospects are limited, and in the medium term it depends on factors outside of League's control, in the individual states." --Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR

In his 1991 book A History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani writes, "Military weakness, the growth of separate interests and of economic dependence all led to the disintegration of whatever common front had seemed to exist until the war of 1973. The obvious line along which it disintegrated was that which divided the states whose ultimate inclination was towards the USA, a political compromise with Israel, and a free capitalist economy, and those which clung to neutralism."

The decision by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to open unilateral peace negotiations with Israel in 1979 further underscored Arab divisions. As a result, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League (but was readmitted in 1989).

An Opportunity for Reform

The Arab League continues to struggle with disunity and dysfunction, and critics question whether the organization has any relevance in its current form. Though it achieved notable consensus over the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the League failed to coordinate its policy over both the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War. Interviews conducted by al-Jazeera in 2009 illustrate the Arab public's frustration with the organization. "If we are to measure competence in terms of results and achievements," said a twenty-four-year old Syrian, "then the Arab League is not competent simply because they have not achieved anything." Even the League's newly appointed secretary-general (AP), Nabil al-Araby, joined the chorus of criticism in September 2011, describing the organization as "impotent."

The Arab revolts throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and 2012 have offered the League a new opportunity to pursue much-needed reform. Some critics see the appointment of al-Araby as a step toward this end. Brookings' Hamid says, "Here is someone who is more in tune with Arab public opinion, who is respected among Arab activists, protestors, and members of the opposition. He's not someone who is a stooge of the regime by any stretch of the imagination. All of this suggests that the Arab League is changing."

In November 2011, the Arab League suspended Syrian membership and brokered an ill-fated peace agreement with the Assad regime (al-Jazeera), calling for an end to violence against protestors and the opening of negotiations with opposition groups. The League also sent a team of observers to Syria in late December to monitor the plan's implementation.

In January 2012, the Arab League officially called for Assad to step down and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council to support this proposal. Meanwhile, some Gulf Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, pulled their monitors from the League's observer mission over its failure to stem violence in Syria (Reuters).

Mideast expert Shadi Mokhtarim cites the human rights rhetoric that Arab League members adopted in response to the crackdowns as evidence of change. "Although political calculations rendered the Assad regime more difficult to desert than Qaddafi's," she writes, "the Arab League, the GCC, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, the PLO and, much more astoundingly, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all moved to issue public rebukes of Syria's brutal crackdown on its citizens." Still others say the Arab League continues to apply a double standard (ElectricInfitada) in its reaction to the unrest (i.e., condemning Qaddafi's actions, but failing to intervene in Egypt, Tunisia, or Bahrain).

The Arab League is likely to improve little on its record of collective action until members agree to sacrifice some sovereignty (i.e., installing an enforcement mechanism). And until democracy is the mainstay of the Arab world, the League will continue to struggle with issues of legitimacy (Atlantic). In forecasting progress on these issues at the League, Bazzi says, "The short-term prospects are limited, and in the medium term it depends on factors outside of League's control, in the individual states."

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