Why the 2012 Arab League Summit Matters

My monthly article is up on the Middle East Policy Council website. Titled “Why the Arab League Summit Matters,” it focuses on why this year’s Baghdad get-together is a big deal for both Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq and the Arab League as an organization seeking credibility. Preparations, turnout, and pre-summit diplomatic dealings all suggest Iraq and its neighbors are sparing no expense or effort while making sure this year’s Arab League meeting is successful. And for those interested in trivia, this snippet from the opening section also reveals that a Kurd will head the Arab League later this month:

Arab leaders and officials will meet in Baghdad later this month for the annual Arab League summit. The meeting, scheduled for March 27-29, marks the first time since 1990 that Iraq will host the summit, which will allow Iraq to assume the League’s rotating presidency for the following year. Economic ministers from member states will meet on March 27. Foreign ministers will hold meetings on March 28. Although some members are still deciding the level of representation they wish to send, heads of state are expected to meet on March 29. Invitations to the summit were issued in the name of President Jalal Talabani who will host the meeting as head of state. A Kurd will thus be titular head of the Arab League.

This year’s summit comes at a critical time for both Iraq and the Arab League. For Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the summit offers a chance to emphasize his country’s Arab identity and newfound sovereignty following the withdrawal of American troops. Maliki also stands to benefit if he challenges the suspicion that he does nothing without Iran’s permission.

This year’s summit is also important for the Arab League, as it builds credibility after a year of upheaval. In spite of its record as an autocrat’s club, the League laid the groundwork for last year’s UN Resolution establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. Since the last quarter of 2011, it has taken a leading role under Qatar’s leadership in the Syrian crisis as well.

Update: Abdulaziz Tarabzoni, a Saudi youth activist who focuses on political and social issues, offered a useful critique of the Arab League two days ago for Majalla, in an article titled “We Are Not One.” Tarabzoni criticizes the League for its emphasis on unanimity when making decisions. This selection stands out:

The structure of the Arab League comes from an artificial belief that Arab States are identical. Alas, the decision making process takes an inherited value that Arab States will always advocate the same agenda and serve the same interests. This is false.

Our similarities are holding us back. Sharing one language, culture, and religion is certainly an added value component. However, those factors are not necessarily translated into political or economic interests. Saudi Arabia and Syria do not have mutual allies. Yemen and Morocco do not have the same formula for governance, and are not necessarily interested in the same trade agreements. If the Arab League is to take a ‘real’ strategic decision, it cannot be passed unanimously – the balance of powers has to come to place.

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