At its base, it’s a glorified debating forum; that’s how political analyst Shadi Hamid describes the Arab League. The organization has been dubbed a toothless tiger, dominating headlines and gathering leaders for explosively charged summits, and arguably not accomplishing much beyond that.
But as the term of Arab League chief Amr Mousa draws to an end, there is now speculation over who will replace him, and renewed hopes that the organization will perhaps revamp itself to become, for once, an influential regional and international player.
The 22-member organization, representing a combined population of some 300 million people, has traditionally been dominated by Cairo with nearly all the successive secretary-generals hailing from Egypt.
The exception was in 1979, when Egypt’s membership was suspended after it signed a peace deal with Israel and the headquarters were moved to Tunisia. Egypt was readmitted to the league in 1989 and the headquarters moved back to Cairo.
Now, it appears that Arab countries are vying to mitigate Egypt’s hold over the organization and put the reins into the hands of other Arab members.
Amr Mousa’s term ends next May 2011, and the 73-year-old has declared he will not be seeking a third term in office.
The secretary-general is nominated by at least two member states and appointed by a two-thirds majority on the Arab League’s council for a five-year renewable term.
Several media reports suggest a rift among member states over the nationality of the next Arab League chief. Arab officials told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar that Egypt is intent on ensuring that the next secretary-general of the Arab League is one of their own.
Discreet talks between Cairo and Riyadh concluded with an unofficial agreement that the Saudis would help solicit support for an Egyptian candidate. But in the event that an Egyptian is not nominated, Egypt will help Saudi Arabia push for Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’oud Al-Fei’sal to get the position.
In the rival camp, Algeria and Qatar have reportedly been striking a deal to nominate minister of state and former Algerian foreign minister ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Belkhadem as Arab League chief.
“We know very well that Algeria was in touch with Qatar and Syria to prop up Belkhadem,” Egyptian diplomatic sources told the Kuwaiti paper, “and that Algeria has pledges from Syria, Qatar and Mauritania.”
Egypt is hoping to get countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Jordan and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council on its side.
Belkhadem has since denied trying to seek candidacy for the position. High-ranking diplomatic Saudi sources also told the German news agency DPA that Saudi Arabia would not nominate Al-Fei’sal for the position and that Riyadh would support Amr Mousa if he decides to seek a third term in office.
All of these statements and counter statements are fuelling a debate about a reform within the Arab League.
One suggestion being floated is to have the position of Arab League chief rotate among several Arab countries, giving all a chance to hold sway.
But calls for a structural reform are underscored by political disputes. This reform is unlikely to happen because there is not enough political will, said Shadi Hamid, Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center, a public policy think tank.
“Member countries aren’t willing to give it more power because they don’t want to give power to anyone, let alone a regional organization that they don’t have control over. Time and time again they have convened and haven’t come out with unified positions, which was the intent of the Arab League – to pool resources and come up with [a] unified stand in the international arena, but often they emerge from these summits more divided than ever,” he told The Media Line.
“I think you’d need a critical mass of member countries who feel that a stronger Arab League is in their interest, and so far that critical mass hasn’t emerged.”
Abdallah Nasser Uteibi, a Saudi writer, penned an opinion piece in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayyat warning that Syria’s support of a structural reform needed to be examined for unsavory ulterior motives.
“Damascus isn’t really interested in whether there’s a rotating secretary-general or an Egyptian monopoly,” he wrote. “What interests Damascus at this point in time is to find as many weak points in Egypt as possible…The Syrians want to replace the secretary-general in order to pressure the Egyptian government to change its conduct in a way that will fit in with Damascus’s interests, whether it’s to do with the Fatah-Hamas conflict or whether it means toning down Egypt’s position towards Iran.”
Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University said that if the Arab League were to be headed by a non-Egyptian, this would be a “major change” for the organization.
Brown told The Media Line, “Egyptian participation is necessary for the league to do anything, but the degree of Egyptian domination of the organization may make some other power centers in the Arab world less involved.”
Hamid said Egypt sees itself as playing an important regional role and its dominance in the Arab League stems to a large extent on it being the most populous Arab state and its ability to carry weight with other members.
“What we can say about Amr Mousa’s tenure is that he’s a respected figure to a large extent, and has helped things a little,” he said.
What is the Arab League?
The Arab League, officially called the League of Arab States, was formed in Cairo in 1945 as a regional organization representing Arab states in the Middle East and in Africa.
It currently has 22 members and four observers and its declared goal is to promote closer relations and collaboration between its members, and safeguard their independence and sovereignty.
In practice, the league has garnered plenty of criticism over its ineffectiveness. In recent years, the league’s annual summits have been marred by absence of leaders due to political or personal differences and by vocal outbursts of regional leaders.
At last year’s annual summit, Libyan leader Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi, known for his flamboyant style and eccentricities, insulted Saudi King Abdullah and stormed out of the hall, not before accusing Saudi Arabia of being a product of the United Kingdom and being protected by the U.S.
“The League operates by consensus,” Brown said. “On most major issues, there is no consensus. Therefore the league does not operate much. So it has not been an effective organization. On occasion it can make a very bold move – such as in 2002, when it endorsed the Saudi peace initiative. But the league has not been able to follow such a move with a sustained diplomatic initiative.”
Hamid agreed that to a large degree, the league is a toothless tiger.
“The Arab League doesn’t do much, to be quite honest. It has limited influence and doesn’t have binding power on the member countries. It’s often not professional [with] outbursts at summits from Arab leaders. It’s been such a disappointment for so long. It has potential to do a lot more, but the member states don’t get along. There are rivalries between various personalities and it’s unclear what the future of the organization is.”