March 26, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Arab League and the Gravity of Regional Crises
Given the numerous pressing concerns facing the Middle East, it is all-too easy (especially for those on the outside looking in) to develop crisis fatigue. But this doesn’t mean the crises have been exhausted. Though Kuwait’s leader Shaykh al-Sabah called for action at the Arab League Summit just concluded in Kuwait, and UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi implored members to stop the arms flow into Syria, internal tensions continue to fuel decision and action paralysis on this and all other important issues facing the League. The Arab League was established, in largest part, to foster collective leadership in addressing regional challenges, but at least preliminary results from the summit, again, point to persistent rigidity and unresponsiveness. This risks regional leaderships’ increasingly diminishing influence and, consequently, outsiders foisting solutions for Arab issues in response to their potential or actual impact on the rest of the world. Perhaps most frequently unaddressed is the complex and sensitive issue of identity and how leadership does or does not inspire adjustment of relative order: will it remain that member states’ citizens feel themselves first Muslim (or Christian), then Arab, and only third as nationals of their respective countries?
Representatives from the 21 of the 22 member states that comprise the Arab League met in Kuwait on Tuesday, March 25, for a one day summit. (Syria’s seat remains empty since its suspension in 2011.) During the meeting, the delegates, representing countries with a combined population of over 310 million, faced a spectrum of serious issues. However, at least preliminary reporting indicates the only consensus among member states was tacit agreement to leave the issues unaddressed, so failing—or at least postponing—to speak to the aspirations of their respective populations. Among the issues:
The ongoing civil war in Syria has led to over 120,000 deaths and 6.8 million displaced persons—and the utter destruction of families, homes, cities, and, the tearing apart of any semblance of a Syrian identity. Compounding the tragedy, thousands of foreign fighters are flocking to join the chaos. The war, its human costs, and the violent vortex drawing in new recruits all have massive long-term negative implications for regional stability.
The humanitarian crisis stemming from the 2.5 million Syrians refugees forced to flee their homes and country, taxing the already stressed economies and infrastructures of neighbors such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. For Jordan, still dealing with the affects of nearly one million refugees during the Iraq War, this is an unbearable repeat of history within a generation.
The rift between Qatar and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member states Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood—and direction of change and development—has led to the three countries pulling their ambassadors from Doha. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has demanded Qatar close several think-tanks, including the Rand Corporation and Brookings Institute—with negative implications for the region.
Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the once-again-banned Muslim Brotherhood, with 529 supporters sentenced to death on Monday after a one-day trial for the 2013 killing of an Egyptian police officer during a riot. Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and another 681 members and supporters are now on trial for the same charge.
The regional concern, led by an increasingly nervous Saudi Arabia, over Iran’s nuclear and regional-power aspirations, sees Saudi Arabia’s position actually more in-line with Israel than other Arab League members.
The echoes of the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya and Tunisia still reverberating in both countries, with uncontrolled militias and de-facto partitions in the former and electoral tension and economic uncertainty in the latter—an apt example of where regional solutions, not European ones, are urgently needed.
The worsening crisis of sustained high-rates of unemployment in many of the Arab League nations, with unofficial (and likely more accurate) unemployment rates topping 40%, and higher among the youth bulge of many League members’ populations, with massive negative implications for respective countries and the region.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is witnessing growing pressures on all sides for some type of sustainable and workable agreement—but little cause for optimism.
The chronic armed conflict and tension in Iraq that threatens to split the country along sectarian and geographic lines, and that kills hundreds to a thousand people every month.
Weak governance, the absence of the rule of law, and the flood of arms in large parts of North Africa and the Sahel belt, allowing groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to link up with criminal and extremist elements in Mali and Libya.
The inability of many Arab League countries to cut back on unsustainable but absolutely vital subsidies for fuel and food without further harming vulnerable populations and risking violent unrest that can lead to revolt much quicker than anyone can predict.
The worsening resource scarcity in the region has countries such as Yemen and Jordan facing dire water shortages, and no feasible near-term solution. Egypt is extremely concerned about Ethiopia’s intentions vis-à-vis the damming of the upstream Nile, now 32% completed.
Most unfortunately, the adjective “improving” does not appear in any of the discussions nor early reports of the summit’s outcome. Indeed, the ongoing challenges are not just for the Arab League but also for the international community as a whole, given the connectivity of these crises and the huge populations at risk.
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