The Magazine

After the Arab League

Solidarity begins to yield to reality.

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By AMIR TAHERI
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"SHOULD THE ARABS abandon their dream of unity and join NATO?" That improbable question came, in a burst of anger over the cancellation of the Arab League summit last month, from Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the league, after Tunisia called off the meeting it was to have hosted.

If Moussa's rhetoric was intended to shame the Arabs into closing ranks and fixing a new date for the summit, he was disappointed. Many Arab states are persuaded that the league is dead and--amazingly enough--are starting to talk of associating themselves not only with NATO, but with the World Trade Organization and the European Union as well.

Sure enough, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan are already on course to sign formal partnership agreements with NATO at the alliance's June summit in Istanbul. Libya, currently undertaking a complete rethink of its foreign policy, has expressed interest in "some form of cooperation" with NATO. Preliminary talks are planned for Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait to develop links with NATO in the next few years. And Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, the Iraqi defense minister, has indicated that his newly liberated nation's strategy will be based on "close alliance with democratic nations, including those grouped in NATO."

"The collapse of the Tunis summit, now tentatively rescheduled for May 22, has led to what looks like a stampede," says a senior Kuwaiti official. "We now realize that, by grouping together, the Arabs have been preventing one another from contemplating long overdue reforms."

Although Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, described the cancellation of the Tunis summit as a catastrophe, several other Arab leaders view it as a blessing in disguise. Judging by a draft of the cancelled summit's proposed final declaration, they may be closer to the truth than Mubarak. The 4,000-word draft--leaked to the Arab press, presumably by the Tunisians--reveals an Arab leadership paralyzed by fear of the future and hanging on for dear life to timeworn clichés.

Thus, the draft allocates a little over 300 words to a pompously entitled "Charter of Reform of the Arab World." This turns out to be a hodge-podge of contradictory pledges and pious hopes that the summiteers must have known would be taken seriously by no one. The issue of women, for example, is brushed off in 20 words, while the vital fight against international terrorism gets all of 30 words, 22 of them insisting that the term "terrorism" does not apply to anything done by "the Palestinian resistance movements." By contrast, the draft devotes 156 words to a dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three islands in the Persian Gulf.

None of the dramatic changes in the world in recent decades is reflected in the draft. In fact, with few modifications, it could have been presented at any of the 15 Arab summits held so far. Its authors, in other words, are in a state of denial.

They do not realize that with the end of the Cold War, they can no longer play one bloc against another to ensure their day-to-day survival. Nor do they register the impact on public opinion in the major democracies of the September 11 attacks on the United States. They cannot see how out of place the Arab economic system, dominated by a corrupt and inefficient public sector, appears in an age of open markets and globalization. More surprising still is the failure of the authors to understand the effect of the demographic explosion on Arab societies. Nor do they appreciate the significance of a new and growing class of urban, educated, and unemployed youths or the rising awareness among women of their potential power.

Whatever usefulness the Arab League ever had, it clearly is not helping the Arabs come to grips with the two key questions facing them: how to find a place in a world that was not designed by them and that they do not control; and how to reform their political processes to reflect the needs and aspirations of increasingly vocal middle classes in a context of power-sharing.

Because the Arab states are at different stages of development and face different internal and external challenges, no single strategy suits all 22 members of the Arab League. This is hardly surprising: The European Union, a far more cohesive and deep-rooted partnership of nations, has trouble enough moving its members' economic and foreign policies toward convergence. But the result, for the Arabs, has been to slow down reform through inertia and a quest for the lowest common denominator favoring the most conservative members of the league.