Predating the United Nations, the European Union, Asean and almost every other regional body is an institution based in Cairo known as the Arab League.
Since its founding in 1944 the League has found itself in several unenviable situations. It was first shaken when one of its members disappeared from the world map with the arrival of European Jewry in the 1940s. In the 1950s it was shaken again when its founder, King Farouk of Egypt, was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser in a military coup. In the 1960s it presided powerless over the loss of Jerusalem, which Arabs still lament.
In 1979 the League and the attached post of secretary-general were taken away from the founding nation of Egypt and given to Tunisia. The organisation suffered a regrettable period of paralysis during the 1980s when one of its five founding members, Iraq, became mired in an eight-year war with Iran, and the Palestinians launched a successful intifada against their occupiers after losing hope in the Arab League’s intervention to assist them.
The 1990s began with Iraq invading Kuwait and ended with the mass starvation of millions of Iraqi children. In the new millennium there was an unsuccessful second intifada by the Palestinians and the invasion of Iraq by the United States. It could be argued that the greatest success the Arab League can claim is that it still exists.
Throughout this time the secretary-general of the organisation has always come from the host country, which means that, apart from the decade of Arab cold-shoulder treatment of Egypt, he has always been Egyptian. Many in the Arab world argue that this makes the League an extension of the Egyptian foreign ministry, a view that found strong backing when the Egyptian foreign minister of 10 years, Amr Moussa, was appointed secretary-general in 2001. Mr Moussa is no doubt a popular figure in much of the Arab world, and might easily have succeeded had he run for the presidency of Egypt.
To break the monopoly that Egypt has over this failed institution, it must refrain from nominating a candidate when Mr Moussa’s term expires in 2011. It is time for another Arab country to step forward and carry the mantle: to put forth a candidate who can competently advance collective Arab interests, and possibly host the institution. Of the 22 Arab states the one that ideally suits these criteria is the United Arab Emirates.
Reviewing the chances of other states I find that there is almost no exception. The Syria-Qatar (and Iran) axis, at perpetual diplomatic odds with the Egypt-Jordan-Saudi Arabian axis, disqualifies them all. Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Somalia, to varying degrees, still haven’t decided whether they are in a civil war or not. Financially, Yemen, Bahrain and Mauritania can’t afford it. Oman is probably not interested. Kuwait is too mired in internal issues to project externally. Libya hasn’t decided if it’s African or Arab. Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria are too busy trying to join the EU (which won’t happen, by the way): Algeria possibly stands the best chance after the UAE were it not for its conflict with Morocco over the Western Sahara.
Which brings me to the UAE. Without a doubt, this country stands the best chance of providing the next secretary-general of the Arab League and reviving this cement corpse. Just as the League moved to the Tunisian capital during the 1980s, I suggest that Abu Dhabi host its headquarters for the duration of the new secretary-general’s tenure.
The UAE has world-class politicians with a wealth of knowledge and skills that can benefit the Arab League should one of them be nominated by the UAE to fill the post of secretary-general.
The reasons that place Abu Dhabi, as the capital of the UAE, in a unique position to nominate a candidate can be summarised with the following points. It is one of a very few Arab countries that has no political disagreements with other Arab states. Also, Abu Dhabi’s vast wealth and financial generosity towards other League members gives it weight with the member states of the Arab League as well as in the international community. The policies of the federal government in Abu Dhabi are a testament to what can be achieved, and have resulted in residents of 180 nationalities, including citizens from all the member states of the Arab League, calling the UAE home. Finally, unlike some other Arab governments who have manipulated the Palestinian cause to their advantage, the UAE has treated all Arabs, including Palestinians, with respect at all times.
The question is no longer whether the UAE deserves to appoint the next secretary-general of the Arab League: it is merely whether the UAE is at all interested in doing so. Moving the League to the heart of the Gulf may be one way of ending the paralysis that plagues this noble but financially, morally and in terms of credibility, bankrupt institution.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government
This article was first published in The National on Sunday, May 16th, 2009