The Arab League, commonly known as the League of Arab States, was formed in 1945 for the purpose of aligning the Arab nations for matter of mutual interest and concern. Foundations of League were laid by The Alexandria Protocol of 1944 issued by representatives of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan (Now Jordan). But the undercurrent for Arab unity started since the Arabic Revolution against the Ottoman Turkish rule in 1916. Many Arab scholars at that time had a goal to unify the Arab world into one big entity. After that period, nationalism was on the rise in the greater Middle East and elsewhere.
The Arabic Nationalism ideology was adopted as people were looking for ways to end the presence of colonial powers in the region and to achieve independence. Thus, the formation of the Arab League was complementary to the circumstances that the Arab world was living in that time. Arab League has witnessed both good or bad time since its formation but this pan Arab body is struggling to find its relevance today.
The Arab League today represents little more than a fake talking shop where Arab leaders engage in brief meetings whilst exchanging empty pleasantries, before going back and pursuing their vested interests.
The stated purposes of the Arab League are to strengthen ties among the member states, coordinate their policies, and promote their common interests. But ironically it failed to achieve any of these objectives. There are various reasons responsible for making this biggest grouping of the Arab world after more than seven decades of its formation to lost its appeal.
First and most important one is growing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims it’s creating fissures among Arabs. Now there is growing tendency that people identify themselves as Shia or Sunni rather than Arabs. League is considered by growing number of people as Sunni Arab body rather than pan Arab body. Another important reason is the absence of democracy in the member states of league. It looks like that Arab League is the meeting platform of Arab dictators rather than Arab nations.
Also, there is negligible economic integration among member states flow of capital and Labour is highly restricted history has demonstrated that powerful trading blocs have strengthen regional groupings. The best example is European Union.
Moreover, two regional non-Arab powers, Iran and Turkey are penetrating lands in Iraq and Syria and openly interfering in the affairs of many Arab states, including Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Especially Iran now has significant influence in Arab world through its state and non-state actors. Ankara and Tehran are in much better position to undermine any serious efforts of strengthening Arab unity.
Other contributing factor for decline of league’s relevance is lack of institutional reforms. The League should address the functional overlap between bodies such as the Council, the Political Committee and the Summit meetings, and should reinforce the powers of the Secretariat.
Also, there is lack of cooperation among the members to counter growing extremism which is a common threat for whole Arab world. No serious thought has been given by the league to formulate any joint counter terror effort. Increased intelligence co-operation and a centralised intelligence gathering mechanism is the need of the hour, one which does not infringe on the sovereignty of member states and one that can be unanimously and immediately passed by the League without any hindrance and lengthy bureaucracy.
But still the Arab League after all its flaws, has one core advantage that is it’s the only regional organization which brings together all of the self-identified Arab states. If this organisation is strengthened then it can be a powerful regional platform for coordination and cooperation.
Arab states have to understand that Arab unity doesn’t only mean just criticising Israel, talking about Iranian threat and mere statement for support for Palestinian cause it has to go much beyond that. Arab world must rise to meet the challenges it faces and take control of its own fate rather than just leaving it on global powers.
The concept of wider Arab identity in the form of a trans-national nationalism (qawmiya) should be promoted. Arabs should also understand the potential of enhanced mutual cooperation. If in the future the Arab world is somehow united to form a single powerful federation or confederation, it would be the third largest state in the world, behind China and India and just ahead of the United States. Because of its energy wealth, its access to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, its younger population such a United Arab Federation would be a global superpower.
At this point in time it looks nearly impossible to think about any Arab federation but if given right direction and sincere efforts it can be a possibility in future. Some small steps of today can lead to major positive results for tomorrow.