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A League of their Own

A child watches on as an Arab League observer arrives at a Damascus suburb in a chauffeur driven car

Back in March 1945, as the old colonial hierarchies were crumbling into the ruins of the war-shattered Europe, a new Middle Eastern order was emerging in Cairo.

Established to deal with the fragmenting regional interests of France and Britain – two nations whose previous double-dealing bore responsibility for many of today’s ills – the Arab League bound its seven founding members into a pact of mutual political interests.

Yet despite being created nearly 70 years ago, the organisation has been largely impotent for much of its history, bedevilled by infighting and grandstanding during the worst of the region’s myriad conflagrations.

One of its starkest contributions to regional diplomacy came with the Khartoum Resolution in 1967, when the League followed Israel’s crushing defeat over three Arab armies with the infamous “three no’s” – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations.

Yet in subsequent flare-ups the League has wilted miserably. It failed to co-ordinate a response to either of the wars against Saddam Hussein, while during the Lebanese civil war its members wielded limited influence as individual powers pursued their own leverage.

Even the current secretary-general, Nabil al-Araby, has described the organisation as “impotent”, perhaps in light of the fact that there is nothing in the League’s charter which forces members to comply with its pronouncements.

In spite of all of this, over the past year things appear to have changed. Many commentators have noted how the Arab Spring marked a watershed for the League. Beginning with Libya in the spring of last year, when members gave the nod to a Nato bombing campaign, the organisation has developed an increasingly confident strut.

Its decision in December to revoke the membership of Syria, a founding nation, was yet further evidence that the League was capable of co-ordinated action.

Part of the renewed vigour came from an ostensibly unlikely source; the tiny emirate of Qatar, a nation which until the mid-twentieth century was still a ramshackle fishing state emerging from the looming shadow of Saudi Arabia next door.

Boosted by its status as the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas and the highest per capita GDP (gross domestic product) in the world, the nation which gave the world Al Jazeera has spent the past fifteen years attempting to promote itself to the Middle East’s big league.

But it was only during the Arab Spring that many around the world began to take notice. Qatar was instrumental in securing Arab League support for Nato’s mission in Libya, while in April the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, became the first regional leader to call for Yemen’s long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to resign.

It followed this in July by closing down its Damascus embassy in protest at Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters, a hugely symbolic step which marked the widening rift between Syria’s Baathists and her neighbours.

Yet if the Arab League has been re-energised by its role in the 2011 Middle East uprisings, it will have to be careful not to see its newfound influence fizzle out.

Critics have bemoaned the League’s recent role in Syria, with some saying the organisation’s international observers have provided cover for Assad to continue killing protesters.

Moreover there is the telling question of what to do next when the League convenes this Saturday and delivers its final report on the crisis. It’s all very well agreeing that something has to be done, but how to agree on what that ‘something’ is?

For some, 2011 was the year the Arab League came into its own. Delegates will want to make sure 2012 does not undo their fledgling, hard-won respect.

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Alastair Beach
Alastair Beach is a freelance reporter based in Cairo who has worked for a variety of publications, including the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator. He was previously based in Syria.

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