The Arab League is an international organization made up of various Arab majority states in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab League is comprised of 22 states, along with Palestine, who together, meet in order to discuss of concern to all of the members states (CFR, 2014). In this article, we shall discuss the formation of the Arab League as an international organization. Along with examining the early formation of the Arab League, we shall also discuss the membership of the organization, its mandate, evolution of the international organization, as well as issues with regards to the Arab League.
The 22 members of the Arab League are the following:
Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
History of the Arab League
The Arab League, as it is known today, was initially called the League of Arab States. The League of Arab States was formed in 1945. The Arab League was formed so that “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” (Council of Foreign Affairs, 2014).
The idea of the Arab League has to be understood in the context of the politics and history of the 1940s and earlier. There were different reasons that lead to the formation of the Arab League. In the 1940s, states in the Middle East were concerned about a number of issues. One of the most pressing concerns by Middle Eastern states was the role of colonialism in the region. European powers such as Britain and France had control over much of the Middle East through their colonial expansion decades earlier. Britain was in control of Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, whereas France had control over much of North Western Africa (that included Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, as well as other Western African states).
It is interesting to note Britain’s feelings on a unified Arab organization such as the Arab League. Interestingly, “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” (CFR, 2014).
There was another political reason for the establishment of the Arab League; the establishment of a British supported Jewish homeland in Palestine led the Arab states to form the Arab League to work against these additional developments. In fact, the Arab League was active in their outspokenness as it related to the conflict in Palestine. They spoke out against a Jewish state during the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and when Israel declared independence in 1948, a number of Arab states began an attack on the newly formed Israel.
The Arab League then continued to focus on additional issues in the region. Much of their ideological positions have historically rested on pan-Arabism. This has its roots in the early 1900s, with the spread of colonialism, the negation of promises by Britain and France with Arab leaders, as well as the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Then, the Israeli victory against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan further established political positions against Israel, although do to a lack of enforcement within the Arab League, not all states have had strict positions against Israel (CFR, 2014). Nevertheless, leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, during his time in office, continued to stress idea of Arab unity (CFR, 2014). The belief was that if the Arab states could come together as a unified entity, that they could wield significant influence, while serving as a strong counter to aggressor states in the region. In fact, Nasser was so adamant about the idea of unification of Arab states that he came together with Syria in 1957 to form the United Arab Republic.
Mandate of the Arab League
The headquarters of the Arab League is set up in Cairo, Egypt. The Arab League states meet biannually. The main legislative body of the Arab League is the Council of the League (Rishmawi, 2014: 50). There have been attempts to create a permanent parliament, but this has not yet happened (FIDH, 2013). In terms of voting, the League tries to work on consensus, if possible. If they can reach consensus, then all states must adhere to the action. However, if there is a majority, then only those who voted in favor of that action are legally bound by it (Global Education Program, 2014).
In terms of human rights, the Arab League passed the Arab Charter on Human Rights, although all states have not signed onto the document (CFR, 2014). Also within the Arab League also exists the Permanent Human Rights Commission. This entity meets biannually. However, it is also seen as “ineffective.” As the FIDH (2013) explains, “Tied to an agenda the first point of which is settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Permanent Commission barely expresses itself on other issues, despite an increase in the number of councils of Ministers since popular uprisings in the region began” (13). In addition, “The Arab Human Rights Committee is the treaty body established after the entry into force of the Arab Charter. It is composed of seven members, all men so far, elected for four years in March 2009, pursuant to section 45 of the Arab Charter” (14). This committee can hear about human rights cases from those who are registered in that said country (FIDH, 2013).
An Arab League Military Alliance?
One of the most discussed potential aspects of the Arab League has been the idea of a joint military alliance between its member states. The idea of using the international organization as a place to establish and coordinate military efforts is not new. However, this idea has continued to be revisited by the Arab League states, who have argued that a military alliance would help their overall interests in international affairs.
There are some political and regional situations that have many of the Arab League states in agreement upon. One state of particular concern for many within the Arab League is Iran. With rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia (which can be seen not only in politics at OPEC, but also in their different positions towards the rebels in Yemen, and their position on Bashar Al-Asad of Syria), Saudi Arabia has pushed for its allies to take stances against Iran in the region. Stavridis (2015) argues that “This is particularly important for the Sunni Arab world given the distinct possibility of Tehran’s return to the world stage, if sanctions are indeed lifted. If that occurs, billions of dollars will flow into Iran’s coffers as its ability to trade freely internationally comes back online. While Iran may or may not be prevented from ultimately building a nuclear weapon, it most certainly will have a windfall of resources shortly, assuming the nuclear deal is finalized.”
In late March of 2015, the Arab League states convened in Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss this possibility further. Much of these recent discussions were driven by increased instability in Libya, Iraq, Syria, as well as Yemen, where a civil war continues to take place. Arab League states have viewed this instability as threatening their own political, military, and economic interests; with the rise of the Islamic State, there have been additional attacks in countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. In addition, states such as Saudi Arabia are heavily involved in the fighting in Yemen. And because of these different domestic and international conflicts in the Middle East, the states in the Arab League decided to form a joint military alliance. It was reported at the time that the states wanted a 40,000 size joint military. When this possibility was discussed, it was believed that “The initial force [would] be composed of troops mostly from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan (and a smattering of others from Gulf nations), and will be based in Egypt. It will be commanded by a Saudi general, and will boast a structured and permanent command structure. The idea is to pull together a multinational force that could be ready to react to future crises, in the same way that several Arab nations are currently conducting operations today in Yemen. Reports indicate that 500 to 1,000 men will be members in the air command; up to 5,000 service members will constitute the naval command; and roughly 35,000 will be part of the land forces. Like the NATO command structure, this Arab force will have specified warfighting components: air, sea, land, and special forces. The troops will be paid for by their respective countries, and the command structure will be financed by the Gulf Cooperation Council” (Stavridis, 2015).
However, it was reported in August of 2015 that these plans for a join Arab League military were being put on hold. The primary reason for the delay had to do with the positions of the Arab League states in terms of their interests in the civil war in Libya. Libya is currently divided into two governments who each claim legitimate power of the country. More specifically, there is the “Libyan government in the eastern city of Tobruk, largely recognized by the international community. Libya’s alternate government, supported by Islamists, sits in the traditional capital, Tripoli.” In addition, “Both governments have social support, were built within a legal framework, are politically viable and have armies,” said the Al-Ahram Center’s Abdullah. And it seems highly unlikely that the Arab League would agree to arm both sides in the civil war” (Murdock, 2015). And the different government have led to varied alliances within the Arab League itself.
In fact, this will be a continued issue for any chance of a joint military through the international organization. View varied political and regional rivalries, having every member of the Arab League agree to enter into a joint military agreement seems highly unlikely.
Syria and the Arab League
One of the most interesting questions about the Arab League’s recent foreign policy has to do with the question of Syria; with the recent and continued civil war in the country, international actors are lining up to provide support towards those that are aligned with their interests. With countries in the West supporting rebels, and calling for the removal of Bashar al-Asad, others such as Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran are sending troops and providing resources to ensure that their ally states in power. As discussed earlier, the Arab League has been active with regards to Syria and Iraq. But there are a few points that are especially worth noting on the issue of the Syrian conflict.
There have been different points with regards to the successes of the Arab League. Much of this discussion has centered on foreign policy, and as of late, more active foreign policy in the region. Part of the success has been the mere willingness of Arab states to become involved within regional politics of other Arab states, something that they historically have not done often (Beck, 2013). For example, the Arab League took actions against both Libya, as well as Syria and the oppressive actions of the Bashar Al-Assad regime against his citizens in Syria. As Beck (2013) explains, “[t]herefore, the Arab League’s decision to offer the Syrian seat to the opposition is to be considered a major break with past practices. Moreover, with the decision to suspend the membership of Asad’s Syria in the Arab League, the organization defied the strict conservative regulations of its charter according to which unanimity among those that decide on the suspension of a member state is necessary since Lebanon and Yemen voted nay” (2). In fact, it has been argued that the reason Syria agreed to observers was due to the actions of the Arab League (FIDH, 2013).
Furthermore, the Arab League has been commended for the reason behind its actions in Syria. According to Beck (2013), they acted with an emphasis on international human rights law, a shift from previous positions centered on Arab nationalism (Beck, 2012). Regarding actions in Syria,”[i]t suspended Syrian membership in November 2011, brokered an ill-fated peace agreement with the Assad regime, and, for the first time in its history, assembled a team of observers to monitor the implementation of its plan. Frustrated with a lack of compliance by Syria, the Arab League officially called for Assad to step down in January 2012 and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council to support this proposal. The Arab League eventually recognized the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but Assad-regime allies in the organization such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria blocked the oppositions’ full assumption of the role” (CFR, 2014). Moreover, the Arab League has also taken a leading role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), helping the United States and other countries fight the group. It is interesting to note that “In its approach towards Syria, the Arab League broke with its tradition of non- interference in internal affairs of its member states. Since the reconciliation be tween Arab republics and monarchies as an outcome of the Arab League summit in Khartoum in 1967, the League has served as a conservative stronghold advocating the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states” (Beck, 2013: 2).
In 2013, the Syrian National Council (SNC) appealed to the Arab League for full recognition, and a permanent representation at the Arab League on behalf of Syria. Then (as is the case now), while they continue to hold some power in the country, Bashar Al-Assad is still continuing to maintain his own political power, thus not leaving one clear actor in charge in Syria. The Arab League, while allowing the SNC to be involved in Arab League meetings, it was only for “an exceptional basis.” In addition, the Arab League also refused to grant the SNC’s demands for weapons as they fought Al-Assad’s regime and forces. Many Arab League states did not want to grant the SNC a seat because, to them, there was (and is) no clear government representation, and thus, decided to leave an empty seat for Syria (Al Jazeera, 2014).
Some of this also has to do with the politics of the Arab League itself. For example, “Al Jazeera reported earlier that Lebanon had threatened to pull out of the summit if the SNC were granted the Syria seat. The Lebanese finance minister tweeted during the opening session that he stormed out of the session during Jarba’s speech “in line with his convictions and principles”.” In addition, Iraq Foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari also did not approve of the role of the SNC in the Arab League, saying that “”Where is their sovereignty? Where is their authority? They are not a state, they don’t have a government even” (Al Jazeera, 2014).
However, even there actions in Syria were not been without criticism, as some have argued that they could have done much more, but have not, playing a “limited” role in Syria against Assad (Beck, 2013). Part of the reason for this seems to be their lack of agreement with regards to how involved the different states want to be in Syria. While some seem to be taking more a lead (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) in either their language or their actions (military and financial), other states have their own domestic challenges (such as Libya).
Criticisms of the Arab League
Yet despite some points of success with regards to the actions of the Arab League, there are also many reasons to criticize the actions of the international organization. In fact, while we discussed the “successes” of the Arab League on the issue of Syria, it can also be argued that the Arab League has also made mistakes on Syria. One of the biggest issues that people have with the Arab League response on Syria is not so much their arguments for involvement, but rather the hypocrisy of their actions. Namely, they are very willing to speak out on the rights abuses of Bashar Al-Assad, as well as those of ISIS in Syria, but these regimes continue to violate the rights of their own citizens domestically (Beck, 2013). Whether it is in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or many other Arab League states, they are quite repressive of human rights within their respective countries.
As Beck (2013) points out:
“The new policy of the Arab League reveals double standards, particularly when taken into consideration that the driving actors of the Arab League’s policy towards Syria are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The governments of both states are extremely authoritarian and have a very poor human rights record. Moreover, Saudi Arabia was among those eight states that abstained in the vote of the General Assembly of the United Nations on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948” (3).
But along with this, the unwillingness of the Arab League to defend protesters in Bahrain (Beck, 2013) (in fact, Saudi Arabia actually sent their own military into the country to help the government against democratic protesters) is further evidence of the hypocrisy of some Arab League member states.
In addition, historically, it has been argued that the Arab League has done little with regards to effective policy formation in the region. Some have argued that little has been adopted within the League since its formation, with little initiatives implemented, other than an agreement to normalize relations with Israel if it leaves the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Beck, 2013). Furthermore, there is actually no enforcement mechanisms for state violators in the Arab League.
Related to this, there has been a lack of unified policy out of the Arab League. States have continued to seek their own interests, which has led many to criticize the effectiveness of the international organization (CFR, 2014). For example, this was quite evident with regards to Arab state policies with regards to the first Gulf War, as well as during the 2003 US led invasion in Iraq. This can even be seen with recent actions in Iraq against ISIS. While Arab League states are fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there are tensions with one another, largely based on regional power issues. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR, 2014) explains that
“Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, exacerbated by wars in Syria and Iraq, are creating new fissures among Arabs. Sunni leaders largely snubbed a 2012 summit in Baghdad, reflecting their rejection of a Shia-led Iraq with close ties to Iran. Those who did attend traded barbs during their speeches, dashing an opportunity to foster closer between Iraq and its Sunni-majority neighbors. Even as the Arab League condemns the Sunni extremist group known as ISIS, and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates launch air strikes on the terrorist organization, few Arab countries are willing to coordinate efforts with the Iraqi government. Iraq, for its part, has invited Iranian military advisers and deployed Tehran-funded Shia militias in its battle against ISIS.”
Moreover, with regards to Syria, there were divisions on how the Arab states wanted to respond. Allies of Syria disagreed with ideas of removing Al-Assad, whereas other states who have had more tension with Al-Assad were more open in their calls for the end of the regime (FIDH, 2013).
The Arab League and Syrian Refugees
One of the other criticisms of the Arab League as it pertains to the Syrian Civil War has to do with their actions, or rather, what many argue has been their “inaction” as it pertains to the refugee crisis. For example, many of the oil states have not stepped up to offer assistance to refugees from Syria. This has resulted in many citizens in the Middle East states being quite upset at the inaction of their state leaders (whether states in the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, or states in both); “Many Arabs are turning to social media in anger at their countries’ reluctance to open their doors. A hashtag, “receiving refugees is the people’s demand,” was started by people in Saudi Arabia and features a number of harrowing photos and powerful cartoons, according to Arab spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi” (Mohdin, 2015). Now, there are countries such as Lebanon and Jordan that have taken in many Syrian refugees, but the Gulf States, as well as many other members of the Arab League have done very little to help those in their time of need.
The Arab League and the Arab Spring
One of the concerns with regards to the actions of the Arab League center around the Arab Spring (or the Arab Uprisings) of 2010-2011, which was a democratic movement where citizens protested their governments, calling for the removal of authoritarian regimes, and the installation of democratic elections and institutions.
And while the Arab League has been credited for speaking out (and taken actions) against Al-Assad in Syria, there have been criticism of a “double-standard” levied against the Arab League. One has to remember that it is the same Arab League that has states such as Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia as members. In many of these cases, there were protests, or there exists authoritarian leaderships in power. And in the case of Bahrain, the government cracked down on protesters, with the help of Saudi Arabia (Beck, 2013). We have to remember, that the leaders of most of the Arab League are authoritarian leaders, who have continue to hold onto power, all the while have failed to guarantee full human rights, and a democratic voice to their citizens. And in some cases, the Arab League states actually made matters worse during the Arab Spring.
For example, Saudi Arabia went into Bahrain to help the government fight protesters. Other state leaders did not provide full democratic reforms, only changing small aspects of their regime. Thus, again, we have to remember that these state leaders are looking to continue to hold onto their power, and thus, are not willing to implement political systems that their citizens want. This has continued to be a criticism of the Arab League states.
The Arab League and Iran
One of other more recent news developments related to the Arab League has been its actions related to Iran. As we may recall, in late 2015 and early 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s international relations worsened after Saudi Arabia killed a Shia cleric, Nimr Al-Nimr, which led to protests in Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Then, Saudi Arabia also said that it was cutting ties with Iran.
In a show to support to Saudi Arabia, the head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi said that Iran was had been engaged in “provocative acts” against Saudi Arabia. According to reports, “Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, present at Sunday’s talks, denounced Iranian statements “hostile to Saudi Arabia” that he said had “directly driven the attacks” on his country’s diplomatic missions” (Yahoo, 2016).
The Arab League leaders met following Saudi requests for the meeting. At this meeting “Arabi called on diplomats meeting at the group’s Cairo headquarters to “adopt a strong and clear common position calling on Iran to stop all forms of interference in the affairs of Arab nations”” (Yahoo, 2016). Many of these states have reduced their relations with Iran (Yahoo, 2016) over events that transpired during this time.
Council on Foreign Relations (2014). The Arab League: Backgrounders. Available Online: http://www.cfr.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/arab-league/p25967
Global Education Program (2014). Model League of Arab States. Delegates’ Handbook and Rules of Procedure. Youngstown State University. Available Online: http://www.ysu.edu/gep/hsPDF/arab04.pdf
Yahoo (2016). Arab League accuses Iran of provocations amid Saudi row. Yahoo News. January 10th, 2016. Available Online: http://news.yahoo.com/arab-league-accuses-iran-provocations-amid-saudi-row-135422723.html