Arab League needs to find its role

18 April 2008
The Arab League is an organisation in search of a purpose. And unless it is able to create a new role for itself, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant.

It is a problem of which Amr Moussa, its secretary general, is well aware, but whether its member states are willing to give their backing to his modernisation plans is another question.

As a forum for governments to develop common policies on areas of shared interest, there is no question that the League of Arab States, as it is formally known, can play a valuable role.

But sadly, throughout its 62-year history, the organisation has found it almost impossible to find common ground on anything. Instead, it has been hampered by rivalries between monarchies, disputes over territory, competition to provide regional leadership and Cold War divisions.

All of this has meant that the league's member states have been far better at finding areas of disagreement than consensus, and the league itself has serially punched below its weight on key issues.

The one subject where its members have found common cause is Palestine. It is no coincidence that this is also where the league has made the most impact - most recently providing unified Arab backing to the two-state Saudi peace plan, which in turn provided the basis for the Annapolis peace conference.

With US President George Bush due to return to the Gulf in May, the peace process will get another push, but it is unlikely to lead to a settlement by the end of 2008, as Bush hopes.

Moussa has some ideas for a wider agenda for the league, including the development of a common market around the region. It is a good idea, but the organisation's record on delivery does not inspire confidence.

Other organisations, such as Nato, have successfully adapted to change. If the Arab League fails to do the same, it could find itself an anachronism.

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