Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab League’s Objectives and Separate Interests

Signing of an agreement at the Arab League meeting in Cairo 1957, after the Suez Crisis, from left to right: President Shukri al-Quwatli (Syria), King Hussein (Jordan), King Saud (Saudi Arabia) and President Gamal Abdul Nasser (Egypt) (Photo HH)

At the heart of the Arab League’s charter is an integrated concept of Arab unity based on shared cultural and historical experience, a common language and religion, and a unifying struggle against foreign dominance. The broad mission of the Arab League was created as a response to post-war colonial divisions of territory and to unify Arab countries against the emergence of a Jewish State in Palestine. A pan-Arab union would create a strong body that could face regional threats. In 1948, five nations fought a first war against Israel, followed by several other wars in the following three decades.

But with the economic and military powers shifting in the world, and with the development of the Cold War, the Arab states were facing new challenges. Inter-Arab antagonism was facilitated by the emergence of a new world power. The United States and the old colonial powers committed themselves to the protection of the new State of Israel, while keeping an eye on the strategic repercussions in relation to oil in the Middle East.

In A History of the Arab Peoples (1991), the prominent Lebanese-British scholar Albert Hourani writes: ‘Military weakness, the growth of separate interests and of economic dependence all led to the disintegration of whatever common front had seemed to exist until the war of 1973. The obvious line along which it disintegrated was that which divided the states whose ultimate inclination was towards the USA, a political compromise with Israel, and a free capitalist economy, and those which clung to neutralism.’

In addition, the League lacks a mechanism to compel its members to comply with its resolutions. The charter states that decisions reached by a majority ‘shall bind only those [states] that accept them’, lending priority to national sovereignty (and interests) and undercutting collective action. Accordingly, some decisions, although taken under the aegis of the Arab League, are executed by only a small fraction of its member states.