Apr 29th 2016
WITH Syria and Libya aflame, with Iran challenging the Gulf Arabs for mastery of the region and with America questioning its role as ultimate guarantor of stability, this ought to have been a time, one might have thought, for the Arab League to assert itself. Instead, the body appears to drift ever deeper into irrelevance. Its idea of renewal, it seems, is simply to replace its octogenarian secretary-general with a septuagenarian, an uninspiring transfer that is due to happen on July 1st.
Once, it promised to bind the various Arab countries together and forge a superstate, much as Bismarck did Germany or the Risorgimento did Italy. Founded in 1945 in Cairo when Egypt was an anti-imperial beacon, the Arab League helped make the careers of such 20th-century titans as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Houari Boumedienne. Many of the Arab League’s leaders rallied the masses against British and French colonial rule and dispatched their armies in successive waves against Israel. These days it can barely gather the energy to choose a new head.
When, earlier this year, Egypt insisted on yet another retired foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, other Arab states, led by Qatar, openly petitioned for an alternative. Better a candidate closer to the Arab mean age of 22, they reasoned, than an uncharismatic septuagenarian and a relic from the sclerotic Mubarak era cast aside within weeks of the Arab spring. None, however, was forthcoming, and Mr Gheit was elected unopposed.
Arab wrangling is nothing new. Critics have decried the gap between the rhetoric and the reality from the outset. The Arab League’s first battle, for Palestine in 1948, was an ill-co-ordinated rout. Successive attempts at uniting members and joining forces against Israel quickly unravelled. But now something seems rotten not just in the institution but the ideology it represents. “The league is obsolete,” says Khairallah Khairallah, a veteran Arab opinion-writer from Lebanon. “It was built to respond to the 1940s and we’re now in the 21st century. The idea of Arab nationalism is dead.”
Economically, the promise of an Arab free-trade zone never materialised. Less than 10% of the Arab world’s trade is between Arab states. Politically, Israel, its first rallying cry, no longer offers much glue. The boycott on the Zionist entity has more traction in Europe than in much of the Middle East, and some Arab states make it easier for Israelis to enter than Palestinians. Foreigners are seeping back militarily, too. America rules Iraq’s skies, non-Arab neighbours encroach on its turf and the Kurds all but rule themselves. To cap it all, Britain is set to reopen its first naval base east of Suez later this year, in Bahrain. At the Arab League’s last summit one leader lamented that their language was the only thing Arabs still had in common.
Even that now seems under threat. After six decades of Arabisation programmes, the former French colonies in North Africa are abandoning the effort. To the chagrin of its Islamist prime minister, Morocco is reintroducing French as the language of tuition for science and maths. Algeria has declared Tamazight, the indigenous Berber tongue, an official language, and might yet render it in a Latin script. The former British colonies in the Middle East seem to be doing much the same with English. A survey by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, a Dubai-based PR company, last year confirmed that young Arabs in the Gulf use English more frequently than Arabic.
The Arab League is not alone in wrestling with the end of an age of heroes, and the erosion of multilateral ideology by resurgent nationalism. But unlike the European Union, it has failed to find a mechanism for managing rivalry. Too paralysed by sectarian and regional differences, it has stood by as its members were engulfed by war. The former standard-bearer of anti-colonialism looked to European powers to sort out the mess, and in Libya even called on Western powers to send in warplanes. So dejected was Morocco at the prospect of hosting another stillborn summit in March that it cancelled its invitations. Perhaps the Arab League’s only real use these days is as a retirement home for Egypt’s politicians.