It is very difficult to discern when, if you are feuding, you actually relinquish friendship.  That is, if you actually can.  The 22-member Arab League, which was created in 1945[1]in order to safeguard and promote both Arab values and member state sovereignty, amongst other things, has today become rendered to epitomizing the failure of Arab oneness.

If neighbourly feuds are the anathema to peaceful societies; then the Arab world has always been filled to the brim with them. After a nearly 70 year history, some authors have defined it as a bleak experience of regional cooperation,[2]whereas others have gone so far as questioning whether it should be classed as a ‘failure of design’ or something ‘designed to fail’.[3]

In recent months, the League’s decisions have once again become part of international headlines. It was this very organization which had given its blessing to the UN no-fly zone over Libya,[4]the sanctioning amongst many other states of the recognition for Libya’s rebel transnational council as the country’s legitimate government,[5]and all but acquiesced to popular Egyptian demands on the removal of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But if these were decisions which bared the hallmarks of political maturity in line with popular demands; it didn’t take long for the League’s true colours to come out.

Just a few days ago, the League’s incumbent Secretary-General, Nabil Al-Arabi, paraphrased it all whilst responding to a journalists question regarding measures the League would take in trying to end the violence in Syria. His answer was simply to say, “do not expect drastic measures but step by step persuasion”.[6]The League, it seemed, had very quickly come a long way from encouraging the enforcement of no-fly zones to protect civilians.

Reading between the lines, Al-Arabi’s words should not have come as a surprise. Ever since the League incorporated all of the 22-physical Arab states, this voluntary association of mainly Arabic speaking countries has been tarnished by division and inconsistency.  It’s become the laughing stock of the Arab street.

If one could slip inside the eye of an Arab’s mind, it wouldn’t be hard to see why.

Despite the founding charter of the league containing two articles stipulating that member states are prohibited from resorting to force in order to resolve disputes between themselves, and if so the right of the council to take measures needed to repulse it;[7] it has failed repeatedly throughout its history to even mobilize unanimity for creating a forum for the settlement of both Arab and intra-Arab disputes.

For instance, the pursuit of transnational security has failed to even create a single ‘defence pact’ between the member states. As a result the League failed to prevent the creation of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, the Israeli occupation of Arab land of four member states in 1967, the Israeli expulsion of the PLO in 1982 from Beirut, and the subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon up to the year 2000.  Even the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War showed a dangerous polarization not only between some states,[8]but also rulers and their people.

Saddam Hussein’s ruthless and unprovoked occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002- also fell beyond the reach of any unified Arab position.

The concept of Arab unity and nationalism- long associated, although not officially, with Pan-Arab ideology, especially during the era of late Egyptian leader Nasser,[9] also seems to have had minimal affect. The Kuwait situation not only led to most Arab states siding with the international coalition designed to eject Iraq, with some even lending military support, but the public in these coalition states also rejected any notion of Saddam as a Pan-Arab savior.[10]

It was highlighted long ago that as the premise of Arab unity depends on the unanimity rule in all affairs, its agenda has churned out to be little more than the lowest common denominator of the desires of member states.[11]

The Arab League makes use of co-opting some of the administrative procedures of the United Nations, including nominating a Secretary-General by vote and who in turn heads the secretariat which overseas the executive body of specialised ministerial councils[12]and the right for each member state to have a vote.

The problem with this is that under current rules it leaves the resolutions they pass to be adopted independently by member states but with no criteria for them to be enforced and no member state can be penalised for the lack of it. Perhaps the best way to deny the finger of failure being directed at the very structure of the league itself, is to broaden the rules so as to incorporate mechanisms for unanimity, veto power and if possible, robust actions for the failure of enforcement by a member state.

The absurdity of Arab indifferences has long been evident and the Arab League has become an impossible coalition designed to sort it out. Whenever wars, peace accords, civil conflicts and even bilateral tensions are placed at the table; communiqués or next to nothing is often the result. Instead, the various Arab leaders have descended into bickering and infighting, each seeking to present their own measure for dealing with the situation and thereby shifting the blame for the quagmire on the other.

If anything, it shows that the Arab League has become a de-Arabized one. It has failed miserably in uniting for the common Arab cause; it’s left no imprint of socio-economic or intellectual values upon the masses its claims to represent and has constantly been plagued by disunity, grudges and the splitting into two rival camps of influence. The era of its feuding diplomacy, as a result, is likely to be around for a little while longer.


[1] The six founding member states were Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan (renamed Jordan after 1946), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

[2] Lindholm Schulz, Helena and Schulz, Michael. ‘The Middle East: Regional Instability

and Fragmentation’, in M. Farrell, B. Hettne and L. van Langenhove (eds), Global Politics of

Regionalism: Theory and Practice. (Pluto Press, 2005) P.187.

[3] Barnett, Michael and Solingen, Etel. 2007. ‘Designed to Fail or Failure of Design? The

Sources and Institutional Effects of the Arab League’, in A.I. Johnson and A. Acharya (eds),

Crafting Cooperation: Regional Institutions in Comparative Perspective.

(Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp.180-181.

[5] ‘Libyan Rebels win international recognition as country’s leaders’

[9]  One of Nasser’s most notable attempts was the 1958 attempt to bring about the first Pan-Arab State, the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Egypt and Syria, it failed by 1961 when Syria left the short-lived union.

[10] Pollock, David. “The Arab Street”. Opinion Polls in the Arab World, policy paper no.32, Washington. (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy,1992) pp.29-41.

[11] Seabury, Paul. 1949. ‘The League of Arab States: Debacle of a Regional Arrangement’,

International Organization 3(4): 636.