Special Reports






The Arab League was formed in 1945 as the expression of a nascent Arab nationalism following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, weakening European colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa and the challenge posed by the emerging State of Israel (formalized in 1947 by the UN).

Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Transjordan (later Jordan) and Iraq were the founding members; Today, the League includes 22 full members and four observer states. While it is easy to discuss the history of the League, its evolution and its resolutions, it has become ever harder to discuss its purpose.

Apart from expanding, the League has most famously been noted for its ‘suspending’ and chastising. Egypt was suspended in 1979 when it signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel. More recently, on January 22, 2012, the Arab League suspended Syria over its repression of the anti-government revolts that have plagued the country since March 2011.

The Arab League’s ‘suspensions’ of membership offer rare examples of unity within the Arab world; indeed, as an organism, the League, has been most effective at emphasizing the deep political divisions that characterize the Arab world. In the past year, however, the League has reached a remarkable degree of consensus on two of the most delicate issues it has ever faced. It approved the NATO military action in Libya ostensibly, if not declaredly aimed at removing the Qadhafi regime. The League condemned Syria (Shia on Sunni) for its repression of the revolt, also deploying an observation mission to assess the situation on the ground, whilst having nothing to say about similar events in Bahrain (Sunni on Shia ).

However, the Arab League’s apparent unity of purpose does not convey the full story. The apparent decisiveness was animated largely by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates and Oman). Prominent members of the Arab League such as Algeria rejected plans for regime change in Libya and interference in Syria; whereas, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been driving the agenda for regime change in Syria.

The GCC was founded in 1981. It was intended to act as a regional organism to strengthen cooperation, in a similar way to the European Economic Community, while strengthening the monarchical Sunni regimes of the Gulf from Iranian expansionism, in the wake of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Until recently, the GCC has played a quiet role permeating the oil monarchies of the Gulf from the tribulations in the rest of the Arab world; nevertheless, the ‘Arab Awakening’ that began in Tunisia rapidly spreading throughout North Africa and the Middle East, also affected Bahrain, a GCC member, and Yemen a troublesome neighbor to both the Saudis and Oman. The ‘Awakening’ also reached Manama in Bahrain. The GCC was suddenly swept from its slumber to having to preserve security at home as revolts broke out in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Oman. The GCC did not hesitate to approve military action in Bahrain in response to calls for help from King Hamad, and the Saudis deployed a contingent of 1000 troops to quell the revolts in Manama’s Pearl Square.

A famous saying implies that instability creates opportunity and Saudi Arabia, easily the most socially conservative, and one of the most authoritarian, has found opportunity in the Arab Awakening. The Saudis have also discovered an enthusiastic ally in Qatar, which appears to be playing the role of a country that has many similarities to Saudi Arabia, even if in a much more socially liberal version.

Drawing advantages from the regional imbalance caused by regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, so far, the Saudis have asked Morocco to join the GCC as well as Jordan. As the Saudis see new opportunities to proselytize its Wahhabi version of Islam, the GCC would appear to be gaining more political currency than the Arab League. The GCC is home to 7% of the Arab population while having 70% of its GDP. Many of its members are considered strategic allies of the United States – the US is Saudi Arabia’s main military ally; the US Navy parks its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – and it is now in a position to deal with the US unilaterally.

The GCC has shown unity of purpose over the past year; it has proven to be more effective than the Arab League as the latter organization has become subservient to the GCC agenda. If Saudi Arabia still plays an important regional role, Tiny but wealthy Qatar is increasingly becoming the international ‘face’ of the GCC…and the Arab League. Qatar played a crucial role in persuading the Arab League to impose a No-Fly Zone over Libya, setting the stage for the NATO intervention in which it joined in! Qatar was also the first Arab State to recognize the National Transition Council in Libya and the first to finance it to the tune of USD 400 million. One of the prominent figures of the Libyan revolt, Abdelhakim Belhadj is said to have close ties to Qatari intelligence. Qatar may harbor ambitions to control some of Libya’s oil and gas resources in order to reach European markets across the Mediterranean. In Egypt, Qatar has expressed intentions to invest as much as USD 10 billion once the country becomes more politically stable – presumably after the presidential elections. Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, the ‘prime minister; and de-facto ruler of Qatar visited Tunisia on the first anniversary of the ouster of President Ben Ali, last January 15, to establish closer ties, especially as the country is now ruled by the Ennahda islamist party.

The Arab Awakening has shaken up the political climate within individual States while also giving a boost to some of the regional alliances. The boost has not been one of unity; rather it has been characterized by a sort of Sunni revival. Whereas the past decade saw the ascendance of Shiites in post- Baathist Iraq and Lebanon – both parliaments featuring Shiite majorities with close ties to Iran - the GCC and Qatar are leading the Sunni charge for regional influence. The Arab League appears to have acquired boldness because the GCC has driven its agenda in the past year. The Arab League, in contrast, has not been able to find a single ‘voice’. While, the GCC has endowed it with some impetus, the League is now split along the lines of pro-change and pro-status quo.

The Arab League has faced periods of great changes in the past; in the 1950’s and 60’s, many Arab monarchies became Arab republics after military led revolutions, in states from Egypt to Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The League also attracted new important members after the British and French withdrew from their colonies in North Africa – and the Persian Gulf. However, unlike the current phase of revolt, or awakening, in Syria, Iraq or Egypt, in the 1950’s, the military was firmly in control of the various coups and revolutions while enjoying wide support from their populations. The League must now confront a period of prolonged change, a transition, characterized by either a quick collapse of the old regime and a slow political transition in phases to allow multi-party democracy to establish itself (as in Egypt and Tunisia) or by a determined and bloody State repression such as in Libya, Syria or Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia has always been one of the leading powers in the Arab League, influencing many of its policies; however, Egypt has traditionally also played an important role as the most populous Arab country and as the State that established the model for the Arab republic and Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960’s -thanks to the strong figure of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The collapse of the Mubarak regime and the slow political transition in Cairo, has left a vacuum of influence that is being filled by the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, in essence the GCC.

For the majority of its existence the Arab League was concerned with the Arab nationalist agenda, featuring at its heart the Palestinian question, however over the past decade, the failure of successive efforts for the resumption of Israeli-Arab talks and the emergence of more uncompromising Israeli governments have set the Palestinian issue aside. The League is now more entangled in the Sunni-Shiite divide. The way the Syrian and Libyan revolts have been confronted illustrates this point. The former Libyan dictator, Muammar al-Qadhafi, showed a particular skill in alienating influential Arab governments. Having overthrown his own monarch, his leadership won him few friends in the Arab world, least of all amongst Saudi Arabia and the monarchical governments of the GCC; Qadhafi, was even reputed to have organized a plot to murder King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2006. Qadhafi himself had turned his attention toward Africa since the late 1980’s. It was therefore not surprising that the League reached a prompt consensus - in a process led by Qatar- to pull the proverbial plug on Qadhafi.

The chastising of Syria has been an altogether more painful matter. Syria had strong nationalist credentials; it was on the leading edge of the Arab struggle against Israel and despite its alliance with Iran, as the controversy over the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri grew ever more buried in mystery, Syria’s president Asad managed to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which started to invest in Syria. The opportunity to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran has motivated much of the rhetoric against the Asad regime, leading to the expulsion from the League. Iraq and Algeria backed Syria, while the GCC block put its weight behind the motion to expel. The result is that the Arab League has now forfeited any role as a mediator in what is shaping to be a full-fledged civil war in Syria. The political vacuum in the countries that have experienced the ‘awakening’ has weakened their position in the Arab League for the time being, contributing to the consolidation of the GCC, which has become the true force in the Organization. In this sense, the Arab League is weaker now than before the so-called Arab Spring. At a recent Security Council debate over the situation in Syria, the dominant Arab voice was that of the GGC, and specifically Qatar through the foreign affairs minister Nabil el-Arabi.

The GCC has also found Turkey and NATO to be more effective interlocutors than any of its fellow Arab States in the League. The GCC States have managed to spend their way out of the regime-change wave, through lavish welfare spending and employment generation programs. They can be expected to dominate an organization, many of whose member states are enduring periods of great change. The period of GCC domination and the focus on Shiite-Sunni contrasts will not last however. Once the traditional Arab powers complete their political reconstruction, the Arab League may well resume a more nationalist discourse re-focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Iran, currently perceived as the great threat, whilst President Ahmadinejad is still in office; his powers are now very limited since the consolidation of power by the arch conservative camp, led by Ayatollah Khamanei in the Majlis.

The Iranian government is now in a better position to negotiate and to deliver changes vis-à-vis its nuclear energy program, and the spectre of an Israeli or American attack appears to have faded considerably last March. The new Iranian president, who will be elected in 2013, will likely adopt a conciliatory stance with the GCC, which will then no longer dominate the League’s agenda.

The Arab Awakening has generated states that are even more different than one another than before. The partial or full democratic reforms from Morocco to Egypt and beyond should lead to the adoption of more democratic policies at the internal level, leading to more diverse agendas. The League will have to tackle economic and financial issues with greater vigor than nationalist ones. Ultimately, the Arab League’s evolution and current state stresses the fact that the pan-Arabism of the 1950’s is finished.

Editorial note: No member state of either the League or GCC, is even approaching democracy, in terms of the familiar criteria of media freedom, human rights, political rights, a fair system of justice and the absence of public corruption. [Go to World Audit, scroll down right sidebar to see the democratic status of Arab League members]


Alessandro Bruno is a regular contributor to newnations.com and is a writer on Middle Eastern Affairs.