Even when they meet to make big decisions about the future of their institution, the Arab League – and Arab leaders – are more divided than ever. Reporters covering an Arab summit in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte are getting a glimpse of the fractious nature of the League.
Three main topics are on the agenda: the future of direct talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis, reform of the Arab League and extending an offer to Iran and Turkey to take part in future gatherings of Arab leaders.
But on these three main issues, differences are quite obvious. The follow-up committee struggled for two days to craft a statement backing president Abbas’s decision to abandon direct talks with the right wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu. What came of it was a statement vague in its wording, and offering different “alternatives” to the Arabs – if the impasse persists.
Divided on talks
When asked by reporters about specifics, members of the committee were very evasive. Syria, Libya and Yemen are of the view that the Arab peace initiative is irrelevant now and that Arabs need to take a tougher stance on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt stress that the only way to win international support for peace in the Middle East is by inviting the US to play a more aggressive role given its stature as an influential global peace broker.
Since its creation in 1945, the Arab League has made no efforts to overhaul its institutions, most of which are inefficient, outdated or simply born dead. Now all agree that to compete with regional gatherings and deal with the threats in the region, the Arab house must be put in order.
Divisions were soon to emerge again. Yemen has offered a dramatic change of the league in a way that will make it look like the EU. Yemen’s foreign minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi told Al Jazeera that “the question now is how to begin”.
“We want in our initiative to have an overhaul of the Arab League systems. Others believe that change should be done by steps … I certainly think the EU is modernised. It has over the years established greater co-operation and put a lot of emphasis on economy.”
But the Yemeni proposal was short-lived. It was shelved by many countries angered by the audacity of the plan. So reform is delayed ad interim.
Iran: Friend or foe?
But it was a proposal by the charismatic secretary-general of the Arab League that has produced a lot of fireworks. Amr Moussa strongly believes that the Arab League should invite key players in the region – mainly Iran and Turkey – to take part in Arab summits and have a say in some of the decisions that are of common interest.
That proposal too was nipped in the bud. The Arab League is composed of predominantly Sunni countries which are very sceptical of Iran. Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, has on many occasions accused Iran of spreading ‘Shiaism’ in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2009 Morocco severed relations with Iran after making similar charges. The summit opened with fanfare and wrapped up with few results.
But by shunning serious debates about reform and contenting itself with issuing communiqués and creating follow-up committees, the Arab League may be navigating a perilous path. Already suffering from a huge credibility deficit, it runs the risk of further alienating millions of Arabs from Morocco to Saudi Arabia who want to see real work done, not just tinkering around edges.