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A New and Improved Arab League?

Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Mustafa al-Shamali attends a meeting held in Baghdad

For most of the last six decades, the Arab League has been, as one expert put it, a “glorified debating society”—synonymous with ineffectiveness, inaction, or incompetence (and in some cases all three). In the year since the Arab uprisings began, however, the Arab League seems to have enhanced both its street credibility and its diplomatic standing thanks to a number of bold actions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Chief among these were the suspensions of two of its members—Libya and Syria—while calling for both of their leaders to step down, as well as authorizing international military intervention against the former and imposing wide-ranging sanctions on the latter. Are these developments a sign of deeper changes in the Arab League’s modus operandi commensurate with the revolutions of the “Arab spring”? Or are they simply exceptional responses to exceptional (and hence temporary) circumstances?

It is difficult to overstate the significance of the taboos that have been shattered within the Arab League, an institution whose very mission was to safeguard the sovereignty of its members, guided by a strict code of nonintervention in their internal affairs. Indeed, these developments prompted new calls for reforming the Arab League and amending its 67-year old charter, both to formalize new priorities like human rights and the need to protect civilians, as well as to articulate clearer guidelines for whether and when intervention may be warranted.

A reformed Arab League could be a more effective diplomatic actor on other fronts as well, including the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The League’s landmark Arab Peace Initiative, adopted unanimously a decade ago this month, continues to languish. A more robust and dynamic Arab League could also pave the way for increased intra-Arab cooperation in areas of trade, cultural and scientific exchange, and regional security—all currently part of its official mandate, but never pursued in earnest.

On the other hand, calls for reform from within the organization remain muted. Nor is it clear that member states are prepared to confront the group’s most serious shortcoming, the absence of an enforcement mechanism. Correcting this gap would entail forfeiting some measure of individual states’ sovereignty. Moreover, despite the revolutions of 2011, the Arab League remains a collection of mostly autocratic regimes dominated by a handful of powerful members (historically Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but today perhaps Qatar) and committed to preserving the status quo (today, as much of it as possible).

However dramatic recent Arab League actions may have been, they were not motivated by altruism; in addition to various geostrategic considerations for key Arab states, taking collective action against a handful of “rogue” members was one way to channel popular anger and relieve internal pressure on its remaining members, many of whom are facing their own domestic challenges.

It is too early to say whether the Arab League will ultimately be transformed into a force for positive change or a forum for genuine regional cooperation. Changes in the Arab League’s behavior and priorities so far are noteworthy, but not yet revolutionary. But while an “Arab League Spring” is not yet in the offing, the dramatic changes unfolding in—and among—many of its member states will continue to transform the pan-Arab body in new and interesting ways. Like much of the Arab world, therefore, the Arab League remains a work in progress.