Founded in March 1945, the League of Arab States (or Arab League) is a loose confederation of twenty-two Arab nations whose broad mission is to improve coordination among its members on matters of common interest. 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 on Palestinian territory, but it has long been criticized for disunity and poor governance. Critics also say it has traditionally been more representative of its various autocratic regimes than of Arab citizens.
The organization had opportunities to play a significant diplomatic role in the push for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and the uprisings in many Arab countries in the early 2010s. Some observers hail the league’s actions during the 2011 revolution in Libya, where it supported the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, but others criticize its failed diplomacy in Syria and its fractured response to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Many analysts say that sectarian divisions and power rivalries among members will continue to hamstring the league in the years ahead.
A League of Their Own
According to its charter, the founding members of the Arab League—Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan, and Yemen—agreed to seek “close cooperation” on matters of economics, communication, culture, nationality, social welfare, and health. They renounced violence as a means to settle settlement conflicts between members and empowered league offices to mediate in such disputes, as well as in conflicts involving nonmembers. Signatories agreed to collaborate in military affairs; this accord was strengthened with a 1950 pact committing members to treat acts of aggression against any member state as an act against all.
The charter established the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, created a permanent General Secretariat, and scheduled sessions to meet biannually, or at the request of two members in extraordinary circumstances. A formal commitment to international human rights law entered league conventions in 2004—it was ratified in 2008—when some members adopted the Arab Charter on Human Rights [PDF].
The charter has an 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 [the league’s] work until this country enjoys actual independence.”
The Arab League has no mechanism to compel members’ compliance with its resolutions, a void that has led critics such as NYU Associate Professor 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 limits the league’s ability to take collective action. While some actions are taken under the aegis of the Arab League, they are often 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 Arab lands into respective spheres of influence.
In World War II, the British once again pledged “full support” for Arab unity, 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 Palestinians. 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 resulting Arab defeat, known as the Nakba or “catastrophe,” was a defining moment. In his 1988 book, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Charles D. 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 has long been 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 that “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 “nos”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” The Arab League has maintained an official boycott of Israeli goods and companies since 1948, but measuring the effects of the ban is difficult due to lax enforcement and limited trade flows.
Still, policies toward the Jewish nation did not develop uniformly. These postures, as well as relations between member states, 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 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 ascent to power in 1952, in the Arab world’s first military coup, 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. “Arab politics were more chaotic than at any point in modern history. Nasser’s revolution promised unity—but delivered fragmentation and discord,” wrote Michael Scott Doran in Foreign Affairs in 2011.
Perhaps the most pivotal event of the period was Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. The ensuing 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 similar flows of Soviet assistance to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. This arms race culminated in the Six-Day War of 1967, a defeat for Arab armies that included the Israeli occupation of the remnants of Arab Palestine.
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).
The Arab League continues to struggle with disunity and dysfunction, and critics question whether the organization has relevance in its current form. Though it achieved notable consensus over the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, which attempted to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the league failed to coordinate its policy on both the 1990–1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War.
The Arab revolts throughout the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2011 offered the league a historic opportunity to redefine itself. After supporting the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, the Arab League turned its focus to the conflict in Syria. It suspended Syrian membership, brokered an ill-fated peace agreement with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and assembled a team of observers to monitor the implementation of its plan. Frustrated with Syria’s lack of compliance, the league called for Assad to step down in 2012 and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council to support the proposal. The Arab League eventually recognized the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but allies of the Assad regime, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria, blocked the opposition’s full assumption of the role. In 2018, some members called for Syria to be readmitted to the league despite the survival of Assad’s regime, but such a move would require a consensus.
Tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims widened fissures among Arab states, which worsened following the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq. Although the Arab League condemned the Islamic State, and Sunni powers such as Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched air strikes against the militant organization, the league as a whole did little to assist the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Iraq in turn only grew closer to its Shiite partner Iran, welcoming advisors from the Iranian military and Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah.
In February 2020, the league denounced the Middle East peace plan [PDF] put forth by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration, saying it “does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people.” Yet, several league members appeared to tacitly support the plan: ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE attended the plan’s unveiling, and leaders from Egypt and Saudi Arabia commended Trump’s efforts.
Many analysts expect that the league will continue to struggle to coordinate a common approach to the region’s most pressing challenges. Others hold out hope that it can transform itself into an indispensable and unifying pan-Arab organization. Al-Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara writes: “The 400 million Arabs who share the same geography and the same history, bitter and sweet; a people who worship the same God and share the same pride in a glorious past; a people who write with the same alphabet, read the same books, recite the same poetry and sing the same lyrics—they deserve at least one functioning institution that truly represents their collective will.”
Kali Robinson contributed to this piece.