In 1990-1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Arab League faced one of its toughest situations. The leaders of the Arab League, many of whom are the same people who gather there today, met in Cairo to approve a resolution to condemn Saddam and allow foreign troops to launch an attack on Iraqi forces. The meeting, chaired by Hosni Mubarak, was unusually loud and controversial. The Arab World was fiercely divided. In the meeting, Mu’ammar Qadhafi was shouting “The decision has to be unanimous, it has to be unanimous.” Mubarak, on the other hand, did not seem to believe so and passed the decision after a majority of 12 supporting votes were cast. Kuwait was liberated and Saddam retreated his forces.
The outcomes of the meeting are indeed plausible. However, there is something to be captured about the structure of the institution and the mechanism by which decisions are made. In simple terms, Qadhaffi was right: the decision had to be unanimous.
The Arab League charter notes in Article 6: “In case of aggression or threat of aggression by one state against a member-state, the state which has been attacked or threatened with aggression may demand the immediate convocation of the Council. The Council shall by unanimous decision determine the measures necessary to repulse the aggression. If the aggressor is a member-state, his vote shall not be counted in determining unanimity.”
The structure of the Arab League comes from an artificial belief that Arab States are identical. Alas, the decision making process takes an inherited value that Arab States will always advocate the same agenda and serve the same interests. This is false.
Our similarities are holding us back. Sharing one language, culture, and religion is certainly an added value component. However, those factors are not necessarily translated into political or economic interests. Saudi Arabia and Syria do not have mutual allies. Yemen and Morocco do not have the same formula for governance, and are not necessarily interested in the same trade agreements. If the Arab League is to take a ‘real’ strategic decision, it cannot be passed unanimously – the balance of powers has to come to place.
Hypothetically, if the Arab League had a unified currency and economic inter-dependence – which is impossible with the current structure – and the Arab League faced a far-reaching financial crisis, a serious decision would not go through unless it was too broad and inadequate.
An institution like the Arab League must accept different positions and promote diversity. Timely so, pro- Arab Spring countries and counter- Arab Spring countries will hardly agree on anything. The continuation of the current decision-making process will inevitably polarize the institution even more, and lead to the collapse of any regional cooperation. The Arab Spring Arab League has to be one that is louder and more aggressive. The days of fake unanimity and shared destinies has expired. The current situation requires that the institution is re-conceptualized and processes are re-written into something more honest.
We are similar, but our political interests are different. In order to sustain the Arab League, the decisions put forward have to be substantive and effective. Stronger countries must lobby to win the game and regional powers have to compete. Inevitably, this will make the institution more powerful and effective.