Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Growth at the Arab League

The Arab League is looking to expand its mandate and perhaps even its members

The League of Arab States, or the Arab League, has started growing, confirming the important role that awaits it within the new world order. The expansion of the role of the Arab League has become a political, economic and social necessity, particularly because of the wider developments that are happening in the world today.

Changes in the Arab world, especially after the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, regime change in a number of Arab countries, and the appointment of Egyptian Ambassador Ahmed Abul-Gheit to serve as the league’s secretary-general last year have all brought about the opportunity to develop the role of the Arab League.

Millions of Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arab Gulf, together with millions of others from Asia and the African continent, are looking forward to this development. The League is in an ideal position to assist the Arab states in standing up against foreign interventions in the region, with the league in general acting as an influential force in the international community.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been calling for closer cooperation between the Arab countries and those on the African continent, and on Egypt’s behalf he has met with officials from South Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ghana and Togo to serve that purpose. He has also declared that he will work to achieve an African Vision for the coming decades and work to promote peace and security.

In a message to the recent African Union (AU) Summit meeting, King Mohamed VI of Morocco announced his country’s decision to rejoin the AU after its withdrawal in 1984. A debate has started about the need for closer cooperation and even joint passports among some African countries. Questions have also arisen about whether South Sudan should join the Arab League.

The expansion of the league, the increase in its competencies, and the entry of new members are ideas that are already on the table. The Arab League secretary-general has stated that he is seeking to persuade the Arab states to grant observer status to South Sudan in the organisation, as the Arab League Charter does not permit its full membership.

The charter itself is now being revised to meet the new historical and geographical situation, and the development of the Arab League system and the increase in the number of its member states have become possible as far as the general public and the league’s members are concerned.

Such ideas are being promoted by Abul-Gheit, and if successful they would be a major breakthrough for joint Arab action, long characterised by stagnation and in need of new ideas and actions. If South Sudan joins the Arab League as an observer, this will open the door for other African countries and some countries in Asia, and it might be possible to develop the league into a kind of mini-United Nations, with an Arab Security Council and even an Arab General Assembly.

The overall importance of the Arab League lies in the coordination it allows for between member states, particularly in trade, communications and cultural relations. Arab League member states cover over 13,953,041 km in area and straddle the two continents of Africa and Asia. Recent statistics indicate that there are some 339 million people in the Arab region, and its total population is the fourth largest in the world after China, India and the European Union.

The signing of an agreement on joint Arab defence and economic cooperation in April 1950 shortly after the league’s foundation committed the signatories to the coordination of defence measures. The league itself was founded at the end of the Second World War with British support.

“The Arab world,” said Anthony Eden, the then UK foreign secretary, “has made great strides since the settlement reached at the end of the last war, and many Arab thinkers desire for the Arab peoples a greater degree of unity than they now enjoy. In reaching out towards this unity, they hope for our support. No such appeal from our friends should go unanswered. It seems to me both natural and right that cultural and economic ties, too, should be strengthened. His Majesty’s Government for its part will give its full support to any scheme that commands general approval.”

In February 1943 Eden reiterated that the British government supported the “movement among the Arabs to achieve economic, cultural and political unity”.

THE LEAGUE’S FOUNDATION: Following the adoption of the preparatory Alexandria Protocol in 1944, the Arab League was founded on 22 March 1945, aiming to be a regional organisation of Arab states with a focus on developing the economy, resolving disputes, and coordinating political aims.

The new league’s main goal was to “draw closer the relations between member states and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries,” the early documents said. The Arab states signed the Charter of the Arab League in 1945 except for Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which signed later. The date of 22 March each year is now the anniversary of the founding of the Arab League.

At the 1964 Cairo Summit of the Arab League, the group initiated the creation of an organisation representing the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was thus founded during this meeting on 2 June 1964. Palestine was admitted to the Arab League shortly afterwards, represented by the PLO. Today, Palestine is a full member of the Arab League.

The league has long worked on behalf of the Palestinian people, and in 2002 it adopted the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-inspired peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The initiative offered full normalisation of relations with Israel. In exchange, Israel was required to withdraw from all the Palestinian Occupied Territories, including the Golan Heights, to recognise a Palestinian independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and to recognise a “just solution” for the Palestinian refugees.

The Peace Initiative was again endorsed in 2007 at the Riyadh Summit of the League. In July that year, it sent a mission consisting of the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers to Israel to promote the Initiative.

Although 20 per cent of Israel’s population is made up of Arabs and Arabic is an official language of the country, Israel obviously is not a member of the Arab League. Chad is not a member either, although Arabic is an official language.

Eritrea and other countries have requested to be granted observer status at the League, but there is nothing in the League system that could make this official, either in the Alexandria Protocol, the founding document, or the Arab League Charter which restricts membership of the League to independent Arab countries. However, this does not prevent inviting countries outside the Arab League from attending Arab summits as observers. At present, such observers may express their opinions but they do not have the right to vote.

The Arab League has long faced criticisms from other countries, notably because the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved, the Syrian crisis has not been solved, and there are now millions of Syrian and other Arab refugees. It is to be hoped that the league’s secretary-general, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, an Egyptian diplomat who has been in office since July 2016, will be able to make progress on these and other issues.

Abul-Gheit served as Egyptian minister of foreign affairs from July 2004 to March 2011, and he was previously Egypt’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He started his career as third secretary at the Egyptian embassy in Cyprus. He was then first secretary to Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, worked at the Egyptian embassy in the former Soviet Union, and was then Egyptian ambassador to Italy, Macedonia and San Marino.

In 1999 he was appointed head of Egypt’s permanent delegation to the United Nations in New York.

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