In the News
May 23, 2024

The Arab League's Perpetual Dilemma | Opinion

Ryan Bohl
Senior Middle East and North Africa Analyst at RANE

"Founded in 1945, the Arab League has always aimed for pan-national aspirations, regional coordination, and peace. However, crisis after crisis has seen it act more as a bystander and trend follower rather than a regional leader. There's little on the horizon to suggest that the League is ready to break out of this historical paradigm.

A case in point is the recent Manama Summit, where Arab League members agreed on a proposal to call for United Nations peacekeepers in the Palestinian Territories as a step toward establishing a Palestinian state. This proposal has little chance of having an actual impact on the ground. Israel remains highly skeptical of the U.N.'s role in the Palestinian territories due to controversies with UNRWA and the U.N.'s inability to prevent Hezbollah from militarizing the Lebanese-Israeli border. Thus this represents a status quo approach: offering a proposal with little chance of implementation, while at the same time refraining from demanding members use what leverage they do have over Israel—economic and diplomatic—to make the proposal more likely to be enacted.

This is because from its inception, the Arab League has lacked the structural heft to implement its vision. There is no mutual defense or binding sanctions clauses that might enforce the League's agreements or punish aggressors. It is most effective when its members' national interests align naturally, as they did during the early part of the Syrian Civil War when the League expelled Damascus from the bloc, and again in 2023, when the League's key members agreed to bring Syria back into the fold. Despite this nominal diplomatic victory, this episode had little impact on the developments of the Syrian Civil War itself and instead simply reflected different states' changing priorities. In other words, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the target of his fellow Arab-majority governments, Syria was expelled; when these governments recognized that Assad had nominally won the civil war, they acquiesced to his return to the League.

Now, the League reflects a newfound regional unity around the Palestinian question, which emerged after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. For Arab-majority states, the Palestinian issue had been steadily dropping in political priority, in part due to its insolubility because of Israeli intransigence toward a two-state solution. But the October attack proved once more that the Palestinian issue is capable of upending regional geopolitics in ways that matter to the major constituent members of the Arab League. Particularly for Gulf Arab states seeking economic diversification, the imperative for a pacific regional security environment has only grown, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's potential to disrupt such economic strategies has made it more important. It is not so much that the region has discovered its conscience but rather has been forced to confront that their core interests can readily be upended by it.

Thus, the diplomatic machinations of the League reflect this widespread sentiment. For the Middle East, a two-state solution is the political and diplomatic path of least resistance to the strategic outcome they desire, which is regional calm. But it is important to note that the final goal is calm, and different Arab actors would likely be open to alternative paths which could provide that. Emirati officials in the past have discussed the idea of a one-state solution, advocating for Palestinians' political rights in the former mandate rather than securing an independent state for them. As Israel continues to expand settlements and the war in Gaza looks to be open-ended, hope for a two-state solution may fade, and Arab-majority states looking to advocate for the Palestinians might choose a different path of least resistance if they think it might diffuse the drivers of the current conflict.

This dynamic is key to understanding the League's ineffectiveness. It lacks a central hegemon that could play a role akin to the United States in NATO, acting as the ultimate geopolitical backstop for institutional integrity. The League will continue to be pulled in different directions by national interests, and its cohesion will come and go as those interests change. It will not be so different from other supranational institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which are more style than substance. To understand how Middle East geopolitics will develop next, it is best to look at the individual states and assess their core interests as they navigate the turbulence of the Gaza war."

Read Ryan Bohl's article published in Newsweek here.