By Matthew M. Reed
It’s no secret the Middle East has lacked consequential regional institutions for some time. Indeed, cooperation has proven elusive in spite of major threats, shared interests, and close proximity. The Gulf Cooperation Council (a sub-regional outfit including most of the Arab states that touch the Persian Gulf) and the Arab League (consisting of 22 Arab nations in the Middle East and Africa) were flawed from the very beginning. A quick review of the Arab League’s charter reveals no willingness to impose decisions, reforms, or changes as a group; instead, each country’s sovereignty is enshrined so that autocrats–even those with democratic pretensions–are left to enjoy their privileges. Same goes for the ‘monarchs-only’ GCC. These authoritarian preferences, which elevate each country’s sovereignty to an extreme, made both organizations rigid, thus leading to inaction. Many observers have rightly dismissed the Arab League and GCC for decades now precisely because they have so little to show in spite of all their annual meetings.
While both the League and the Council have been dismissed for decades, this year’s unrest has challenged both institutions and their responses have been quite different. Earlier this month, Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil al Arabi called the organization “impotent.” To some this admission signals a refreshingly blunt acknowledgment of the organization’s flaws. To others, it sounds like simple resignation–recognition that the Arab League is being outpaced by fast-moving developments in the region. No major changes appear likely very soon for the League, either, thus confirming al Arabi’s characterization. And even though the League approved NATO’s no-fly zone over Libya and granted it the regional legitimacy it desperately needed, those deliberations were–by many accounts–driven by the GCC. Meanwhile, the Council enjoys a smaller stable of members with overlapping interests and the internal security required for decisive action.
As I wrote on September 10, I think environmental shock is forcing the GCC to evolve: “[…] today’s GCC is changing fast. Indeed, the Council can no longer be dismissed. Recently coordinated diplomatic, military, and economic policies have challenged the organization’s reputation. Council members meet tomorrow and when they do, they will discuss Jordan’s possible membership as well as regional developments. Their response to those developments proves the GCC has been more active this year than in any previous year since its creation in 1981. Moreover, this strategic reorientation is not temporary. Circumstances guarantee “active” is the new normal for the GCC.” It’s truly an exciting time to follow the GCC as it comes into its own 30 years after its creation.
In contrast, the Arab League hasn’t matched the Council’s activism, and with good reason: it’s too big and clumsy–consisting of 22 members as opposed to the Council’s six–and its goals are now more varied than ever. Some governments are busy guarding against change, others fight citizens in the streets, and a select few are now recovering from uprisings. It’s also worth noting that popular expectations now clash with the “impotence” expressed by the Secretary-General. Many in the region want governments to take principled stances when autocrats like Assad offend the Arab world by suppressing millions. The Arab League can’t offer such decisive action so long as its members are divided and the DNA of the institution remains unchanged. And the Council–saturated with monarchs–can only pretend to represent the will of the Arab world as protesters demand political freedoms not found in those countries.
Going forward, the Arab League looks secure only because its been around so long. The GCC’s sub-regional model, however, with specific interests and considerable resources, will be more successful, I think. Given this contrast, it’s worth considering whether or not other sub-regional organizations could form in the coming years as governments change dramatically and common problems require cooperation. Look to Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt–three countries very much dependent on each other and now bound by shared revolutionary experiences. Each is now tasked with rebuilding at a time when their economic success partially depends on its neighbors. Institutionalized cooperation there is entirely possible. Changing norms might also prompt realignments. More successful revolutions–so long as they result in civilian rule and sidelined militaries–will in all likelihood make a new League of Arab Democracies especially appealing, as the difference between democrats and autocrats produces friction.
As the Middle East undergoes systemic change, we should expect institutional changes and intra-Arab cooperation take new forms.