With conflict, strife and disputes engulfing the region, leaders are once again meeting to come to a consensus on a range of burning issues.

The Arab world is in a shambles. Nearly half of Yemen’s population is on the brink of starvation. Millions of Syrians have been forced to abandon homes. Libya is divided among various power centres, while Qatar is facing an economic blockade from its neighbours. And Palestinians have been reduced to sitting ducks waiting to be picked by Israeli guns. 

 Amidst all these lingering issues the Arab leaders will meet on March 31 for the 30th Arab League Summit in Tunis, Tunisia. 

For years, experts have voiced doubts about the utility of the 22-member body, which was formed in 1945 with promises to foster pan-Arabism and cooperation in areas of security and economy. 

Yet rarely have the leaders - most of them monarchs and dictators - agreed on anything. Infighting and diplomatic fissures have almost perpetually impaired their unity. 

That’s mainly because member states have preferred to pursue individual interests over the rhetorical commitments to Palestine, regional peace and other issues. 

“We have states like Lebanon and Syria, which remain without a peace treaty with Israel, while others in the Arab League like Egypt and Jordan have taken up their own interest,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, a think-tank. 

“Individual states have come up with their own strategies to work with Israel so it no longer becomes a factor instability for them,” he told TRT World

In the afternoon of March 22, 1945, the long awaited signing of the Arab League Charter by delegates from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, took place in Cairo.
In the afternoon of March 22, 1945, the long awaited signing of the Arab League Charter by delegates from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, took place in Cairo. (AP Archive)

There have been some past occasions however when the League came up with a collective response. It led an effective boycott of Israel for years, making it difficult for multinational companies such as Toyota to do business in the Jewish state. 

And it has come down hard on its own members as well if they have digressed too far from the League’s agenda. Egypt was forced out for 10 years when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. 

In 2011, it suspended Syria’s membership after the Bashar al Assad’s regime launched a military crackdown against street protests during the heydays of the Arab Spring. 

The members also came together to support a no-fly zone over Libya that year to support rebels fighting former president Muammar Gaddafi. 

But these were all exceptions, as Bohl points out, the League struggled to find common ground on pressing matters such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. 

Then again, the Arab League, despite being the first international body to wade into the Syrian civil war, wasn’t able to enforce any of its decisions.

The lack of cooperation between members is in stark display even now. Days before the upcoming summit, news emerged about Syria’s readmission before the League dismissed it as not being on its agenda. 

However, in recent months, member states Jordan and Egypt have hosted Syrian regime officials and Sudanese President Omar al Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria in December since 2011.

Just days before the Arab League summit starts Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza City destroying homes along with a Hamas security building.
Just days before the Arab League summit starts Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza City destroying homes along with a Hamas security building. (AP)

Relations are frosty even between League’s rich member countries, which have their own grouping, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 

Saudi Arabia led a group of Arab countries to impose a diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar, accusing it of being close to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab political movement that for years gave monarchs nightmares. 

Riyadh often blames Arab world’s troubles on Iran, which militarily helped Syria's Assad survive, influenced political parties in Iraq and enjoys close links with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. 

“Iran definitely benefits from wedges between the Arab League members,” said Bohl. “But it’s very hard for Iran to create any.” 

For instance, Iran was quick to emerge as Qatar’s key trading partner after Saudi Arabia cut off food supplies to Doha. 

The Arab League can provide a forum for leaders to sit down and sort out their problems, said Bohl. “Saudi Arabia and others might avoid Qatar but for the sake of Arab unity they would get together during the summit and those are chances where differences can be discussed.”

The League has helped members at times such as in the case of Lebanon, which has one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratio and depends on other Arab cousins for financial support. 

But to keep itself relevant in face of multiple geopolitical challenges, the Arab League “needs to transform from an ineffective forum for debate into a venue for genuine decision-making,” argued Michael Broning, in a March 2014 article for Foreign Affairs. 

For that to happen, the League has to be make its decisions binding and some members have to assert influence just like the African Union members South Africa and Nigeria, with big militaries and populations have done, says Bohl. 

“Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Alegria and Iraq all have to come together and say this is what we want for the region. If others don’t go our way then we will take action.”

What makes such a cohesion difficult is the clash of outsized personalities which rule the Arab world. 

Bohl says powerful figures such as the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman can change policies and institutional legacy of previous rulers without any checks. 

And it’s in Tunisia, where the Arab leaders meet, where the hopes of a better future lie.

“Tunisia is success story of Arab Spring. They are developing institutional resilience, able to go through transition of power, and political parties are learning how to compromise.” 

Source: TRT World