Political Risk: A League of Their Own?

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BY ANDREW BOND

APRIL 12, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC–On Thursday March 29, Iraq hosted its first Arab League summit since 1990 which became famous for the plate-throwing incident between the Iraqis and Kuwaitis.   Held in a former palace once belonging to Saddam Hussein, this summit is also the first since the U.S’s withdrawal from Iraq and last year’s Arab Spring.  Despite the presence of new leadership though, the leaders that didn’t attend made this year’s summit stand out from previous years.  While Iraq hoped that hosting this year’s summit signaled its return to the Arab world, this may not be the case.
The lack of representatives at the summit highlights the growing rift between Sunni and Shia leaders across the Middle East.  This is perhaps most prevalent amongst the Gulf states who distrust the Shia-led government, viewing it as a proxy government for Iran.  In unusual direct remarks, the prime minister of Qatar cited the marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni minority as a reason for the low representation of states from the Gulf.   The presence of the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, though does indicate that relations between Iraq and Kuwait are starting to improve.  Additionally, al-Maliki met Bahrain’s foreign minister prior to the meeting. 
The league is already suffering to regain credibility as an effective geopolitical regional body and its ability effectively to solve regional issues could grow into a much larger problem as Iraq takes presidency.  Sans the league’s intervention in Libya, the league is facing criticism for its handling of the Arab Spring. It is rumored that the meeting between al-Maliki and Bahrain’s foreign minister was to ensure Bahrain that their, now yearlong plus, conflict would remain off the table.  Additionally the Iraqi government canceled a private conference to support the Bahraini protest movement and was set for April 15th in Baghdad. The league additionally, has been criticized for not taking stronger action in Syria and Yemen.   The distrust that Sunni dominated governments have with Iraq’s Shia government will create a divided “Us vs. Them” body which will only further exacerbates the league ability to truly be effective.
Seeing the ineffectiveness of the Arab League, alternative regional bodies, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and individual states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have taken the opportunity to gain greater leverage within the MENA region.   Qatar brokered peace talks for Sudan and Lebanon, was major support of rebel groups during Libya’s conflict and, has been active in joining other countries and international organizations in addressing the conflict in Syria.  Additionally, Qatar’s royal family has offered refuge to President Al Assad and his family according to recently leaked emails from his wife. Saudi Arabia provided refuge to Tunisia’s former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali and leads the GCC security forces in Bahrain.  The GCC has taken a greater security role in the Gulf using the Peninsula Security Forces, supported rebels in Libya and has condemned Al Assad and has voiced its preferences for regime change in Syria.  Seeking to increase its sphere of influence from beyond the Gulf, the GCC has sought to expand its membership to include Jordan, Morocco and possibly Yemen.
Non-Arab League states have also influenced the effectiveness of the league.  Both Iran and Turkey have strong regional influences while non-regional actors such as the U.S., China and, Russia are further contributing in dividing Arab League members.  Iran is a known supporter of terrorist groups in the region and many Sunni leaders view Shia governments, like Iraq, as simply being a proxy for Iran.  Turkey views itself as being a “broker” between the Middle East and Europe.  Its disputes with Iraq and Syria, yet conservative leaders in the Middle East distrust Turkey due to its secularism.  The U.S., China and, Russia have a long history of exerting their influence in the Arab region and have contributed to both resolving and escalating disputes in the region as we have seen with the differing views the three states have taken on the ongoing conflict in Syria.
For some members, working outside of the Arab League has had greater success in resolving regional issues.  The “Friends of Libya” and now “Friends of Syria” committees, which consisted of various Arab and European states, the United States and, several international organizations including the UN, have had greater success in resolving those countries respective conflicts.  These “Friends” committees pose the greatest threat to the Arab league as they allow for Arab states to almost completely bypass the league by only working with likeminded states, within the Middle East and beyond, that share similar interests in resolving the dispute. This furthers divides Arab League members along the “Us vs. Them” lines when it comes to critical issues taken up by the league.
Created with the intention of bringing Arab states together, the distrust among leaders will prove to be a critical element that the league needs to overcome in order to ensure the leagues future.  In order to ensure the effectiveness of the Arab League, Iraq needs to quickly prove that it can be trusted to lead the league.  If Iraq fails to gain the trust of key members, such as the Gulf states, the league itself will ultimately fail and member states will continue to turn to alternative bodies, such as the GCC, and form other bodies, like the “Friends,” which share similar interests which will create a divide among Arab states.

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