When survival is success: regional organisations in the Arab world

Summary: the Arab world’s oldest and most comprehensive regional organisation, the Arab League, has only very modest achievements to its name. Other, sub-regional, groupings have ceased to exist, become paralysed or are beset by internal strife. In these circumstances, simply to survive looks like success.  

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2 thoughts on “When survival is success: regional organisations in the Arab world”

  1. These multilateral organizations did not produce substantive integration, but in some instances they have proved useful forums for testing and exploring initiatives and concepts. Many of the original concepts for an integrated GCC electricity grid, rail network and monetary union were conceived in the early 1980s by the Secretariat as a way to incentivise prospective efforts at political union. While that has not been the result, member states continue to pursue smaller versions of these cooperative measures on a transactional basis.
    In the late 2000s, successful Qatari efforts within the AL’s Arab Peace Initiative Committee ultimately allowed Abu Mazen to restart peace talks by demonstrating broader Arab backing for an otherwise unpopular effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Although the peace talks failed and the membership/role of the committee has changed, that model remains an attractive one that future negotiators might turn to.
    More interesting is the clear recognition by Saudi Arabia in 2011-2012 that these institutions could be a useful tool for applying diplomatic pressure if used in a coordinated and sophisticated way. This was highly unusual for the Kingdom, which was not previously known for taking an active leadership role in multilateral organizations, but Saudi Arabia has gone on to engage in similar efforts since. In 2011-2012, the issue was Syria, and the Kingdom’s goal was to produce a resolution in the name of the GCC that strongly condemned the actions of the Asad regime, use that language as the basis of a similar resolution at the AL and OIC, and convert that regional support into pressure at the UN for the same.
    That new Saudi awareness that these institutions can serve a valuable purpose in moments of crisis if the Kingdom is ready to take an active public role is reflected in the Kingdom’s efforts to take over more leadership positions within the AL, including the AL Ambassador position in Washington, which was held by a senior Saudi diplomat for a couple years recently.

    1. Might I add that another regional institution – pan-Muslim but mainly Arab and with a significant Saudi input, and which has on occasion engaged in effective and moderating intervention in situations of tension, is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), based in Jedda. Two specific instances of OIC involvement in crisis diplomacy, from my own experience, and in both of which Saudi Arabia under King Fahd played a significant hand, occurred with the controversy in 1988 over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses” and five years later during a critical period of the Bosnia crisis.
      In the first case at a time when the fatwa calling for violent protest against the book, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, was presenting a serious risk of civil disorder on the part of Muslim communities, and particularly in Britain, a declaration emanating from Jedda on behalf of the members of the OIC, while supporting the call for the book to be banned as blasphemous, stopped short of endorsing the Ayatollah’s incitement to violence and helped to take some of the heat out of the crisis.
      On Bosnia at a time of growing pressure across the the Islamic world for some form of direct military intervention in support of the Bosniak Muslim community, the annual meeting of the OIC, held in Jedda in January 1993 under Saudi chairmanship, having considered and rejected the peace plan devised by Cyrus Vance and David Owen on behalf of the United States and the European Union for the cantonisation of the country, yet resisted the calls by certain members for military intervention in favour of renewed diplomatic engagement through the United Nations, a line to which it held through subsequent peace talks in Geneva and Dayton.

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