The Arab League is an organization of twenty-two countries whose purpose is to develop educational and economic policies and programs to benefit the Arab world. Although the Arab League was organized in 1945, its roots go back to the early 1900s. But a lack of unity and cooperation among its members has hindered the Arab League’s success, and whether the league will be effective in the future remains questionable.
During the early 1900s most Arab countries were still under colonialism, but a growing number of Arab political leaders, especially those from Syria and Egypt, wanted more of a role in shaping the future of their countries. By 1932 leaders had made plans for the Pan-Arabian Conference, the purpose of which (according to a 1932 New York Times article) was to “combat imperialism and to free Arabian States from mandatory control.” Calls for Arab unity increased, led by Egyptian diplomat Abdul Rahman Azzam and Iraqi prime minister Nuri Sa’id, who is credited by some historians with coining the name “Arab League.” By 1944, at a conference in Alexandria, Egypt, the framework for the league was created, and on 22 March 1945, the official charter was signed. The Arab League’s constitution declared that one of the Arab League’s goals is “to promote cooperation among member states, particularly in matters of culture, trade, and communication” (New York Times 1945, 8). Seven countries were the founding members: Egypt, Jordan (then called “Trans-Jordan”), Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. The league’s first secretary-general was Abdul Rahman Azzam, whose previous experience included serving as Egypt’s minister of Arab affairs and undersecretary of foreign affairs. A strong proponent of Arab nationalism, Azzam would become the Arab League’s liaison with Western governments as well as the league’s spokesperson at the United Nations.
During its first year the league advocated for greater autonomy for those Arab countries still under colonial rule or occupied by foreign troops. The league expressed support for Libya (which had been under Italian rule until World War II), and it also spoke out on behalf of Syria, which, although an independent republic since 1941, still had French troops on its soil. The Arab League also wanted a solution to the problem of Palestine; members were opposed to further Jewish immigration into the region. They joined to mount an attack against the newly created state of Israel in 1948, but the attack was unsuccessful.
During the league’s early years it did not have much actual power, but it was able to speak with a unified voice on issues that mattered to the Arab world. Secretary-General Azzam became well known for his diplomatic efforts at the United Nations; he served as secretary-general until he resigned in 1952. After Libya finally gained independence, it joined the Arab League in 1953. Next to join were Sudan in 1956, Tunisia and Morocco in 1958, and Kuwait in 1961. Other members include Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Lack of Unity
Although the idea of the Arab League showed promise, the organization’s effectiveness has been hampered by members who at times refuse to work Page 141 | Top of Articletogether. Political divisions have often made consensus impossible. Since its inception the Arab League has acquired a reputation for inaction in the face of crisis. The Egyptian weekly newspaper Al Ahram observed in a 2002 retrospective that the Arab League had not been notable for success in handling inter-Arab disputes.
When problems arose in the Arab world, the league tended to react with anger or blame. For example, when Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, decided to make a peace treaty with Israel during the late 1970s, the league members united and expelled Egypt from membership, moving meetings that had been held in Cairo to Tunis, Tunisia. A decade would pass before Egypt was reinstated. In addition to ongoing antipathy toward Israel (and the perception that U.S. foreign policy unjustly favors Israel), other issues led to feuds between member countries. During the late 1980s the league was unable to resolve a dispute over oil between Iraq and Kuwait. This dispute led Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to order the invasion of Kuwait. The United States intervened, driving Iraq out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War.
Although the Arab League has at times been an important voice for improvements in the Arab world, a United Nations report issued in 2002 showed how much needs to be done. Prepared by fifty Arab scholars, the report examined political, economic, and cultural problems in Arab countries and concluded that these countries were lagging behind other parts of the world. “Arab countries are the least free in terms of political participation, civil liberties and independent media,” the report stated and also took Arab countries to task for their treatment of women. “More than half of Arab women are illiterate, and many suffer from legal and social discrimination. They also have the lowest levels of political participation; women have 3.5 percent of seats in Arab legislative bodies, compared with 11 percent in sub-Saharan Africa... [and] despite substantial investment in education, Arab schools are producing graduates ill-suited to the global economy. Only 0.6 percent of Arabs use the Internet, compared with 54 percent of Americans” (USA Today 2002, 6A). And while several Arab nations, notably Dubai and Qatar, have embraced modernity and welcomed certain aspects of globalization, the majority of the member countries continue to have internal conflicts, usually between conservative forces that want theocratic rule and moderate forces that want some degree of secularization.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the violent actions of the terrorist network al-Qaeda have intensified the divisions between moderate Muslims and those from more conservative countries. Whereas the league has issued policy papers that condemn terrorism, some member countries have actively supported it. And even when a Muslim despot mistreats his people, the Arab League still seems reticent to criticize a member country. Since 2002 members of the league have made a renewed effort to unite and develop new strategies, brought about by world events such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but the May 2004 summit, held in Tunis, showed that the league still has a long way to go: one leader walked out, and eight others didn’t attend at all. Although a series of position papers emerged from the summit, including one that pledged to implement economic and social reforms and work toward peace in the Middle East, questions remained about how much would actually be implemented.
In 2007, several moderate Arab states tried to move the Arab League towards diplomatic solutions in the Middle East. The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan met with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to discuss peace proposals, but although the meeting was historic, the subsequent reaction from many of the Arab League’s member nations was not as positive. A majority still refuse to recognize Israel or engage in any talks, thus limiting what Egypt and Jordan could accomplish.
The Arab League has other unresolved issues, in addition to its relationship with Israel. Political disputes have persisted between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian Territories, and there has been civil unrest in countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan. It remains Page 142 | Top of Articleto be seen what role, if any, the Arab League can play in solving the problems its member nations still face.
Donna L. HALPER
See also Islamic World
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