Arab League’s waning influence

Taylor Luck

FOR years, the stage was almost as big as the larger-than-life strongmen that made it their own. Muammar Qaddafi. Saddam Hussein. Yasser Arafat. At times both politics and pageantry, the annual gathering of leaders at the Arab Summit has been a guiding force in Arab politics. But many of the region’s strongmen have made their exit in recent years – voluntarily or forced – and humanitarian, security, and political crises have plagued the Arab world, which has yet to establish a new regional order.
This year’s Arab Summit in Jordan consequently is serving a different function, officials and analysts say: as a showcase of the lack of Arab leadership and the waning influence of the Arab League. With several states reeling in uncertainty and strife after both the ouster of dictators and weakening of remaining autocrats, the League – like the Arab world itself – is divided, looking inward, and dominated by the Saudi rivalry with Iran. The summit ostensibly provides Arab leaders the opportunity to discuss the issues impacting the region, such as the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. But the players and deal-breakers who are shaping events behind the scenes are noticeably absent: Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That such players are absent makes a sobering point: that the Arab leaders themselves are as out of touch with the dynamics shaping the region as they are with their publics at home. “The Arab League is a dead body being kept in the ICU out of hopes we can find a new remedy to revive the Arab regional order,” says Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Centre for Political Studies. “The major decisions being taken about the region are not being taken by Arab strongmen anymore,” says Mr. Rantawi, “they are being taken by Iran, Turkey, and Russia.”
Even summit host Jordan – the event is being called the Amman Summit, though most meetings are being held 40 minutes away, on the shores of the Dead Sea – has warned that unless a drastic breakthrough is made this year, the times will have passed Arab leaders by. “The Arab political system has failed to solve the crises and halt the collapse, as the trust of Arab citizens in the joint Arab institutions has eroded,” Ayman Safadi, Jordanian foreign minister, warned Monday at a gathering of foreign ministers.
The Saudi-Iran division has been especially apparent over Syria, where Tehran’s allies have pushed other Arab states to reinstate Syria at the Arab League and accept Mr. Assad’s hold of power as part of any peace deal. In the face of the brutal civil war in Syria, and the Damascus regime’s crimes against its population, the Arab League had suspended Assad’s membership in the organisation in November 2011. Several initiatives launched by the League failed to curb the fighting in Syria or bring peace a step closer. Arab leaders themselves are divided whether to bring Assad back in from the cold. Host Jordan sided with the previous League decision and did not invite Assad to the summit.
Arab leaders cannot even agree on a stance toward Iran, which provides funding and training to the Shiite militias that support the government in Baghdad and provides financing to Hezbollah, the Shiite movement that has become a major political force in Lebanon. Along with Oman, Iraq and Lebanon are pushing for cordial ties with Tehran. Saudi Arabia and its allies such as Jordan and the UAE are looking to keep the Arab League intact to support the formation of a united Arab Sunni bloc, and a hope of providing legitimacy to their policies, experts say.
This has left states with a large Shiite populations or ties with Iran to distance themselves from the Arab League to steer clear of the summit. Iraq’s and Oman’s leaderships are noticeably absent from this year’s event. Analysts and officials admit that the Arab League, which was built on strong personalities, is in need of restructuring to reflect the changing dynamics in the region. While Syria and Libya are expected to be discussed at the Amman Summit, the divisive issue of Iran will remain the main concern for the Saudi bloc. Efforts by the various Arab foreign ministers and leaders will meanwhile be spent on countering terrorism, followed by the Palestinian cause.
— : The Christian Science Monitor

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