The Arab League’s silence over the Gulf crisis and inability to keep the GCC from splitting reflects a post-WWI regional order in its final throes
If seen as a purely Arab affair, there is no doubt that the deafening silence of the Arab League has been one of the most prominent features of the Gulf crisis.
The Arab League was founded in the mid-1940s on the assumption that it would be the one body capable of responding to the pressures for a union of Arab states and a rising sense among Arabs of a common history and destiny.
Certainly, Britain played an encouraging role in the league’s establishment. Yet that role was born out of British needs, rather than a concern for the Arabs or their interests. In the spring of 1941, at the height of the Second World War and the raging of the conflict over the Middle East, Britain invaded Iraq.
Less than a year later, the British ambassador in Cairo forced King Faruq, under threat of force, to sack his government and commission the anti-Nazi Al-Wafd Party to form a new government.
To contain popular rage against its imperialist policies and confront German propaganda in the Arab world, the British government announced, for the first time, its recognition of a common Arab identity and its sympathy with the ambitions of Arabs to have an all-embracing framework and organisation.
This is what triggered the negotiations, initially led by Iraq and eventually by Egypt, and resulted in the birth of the Arab League.
Right from the start, it was clear that the league would not become a unionist project, but rather represented an expression of common Arab identity. It was one small change to the regional order in the Middle East after World War One that would be followed by other changes, but not a completely alternative order.
With the exception of much of Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula, the main allies in the First World War – Britain, France and Russia – had decided how to share the Ottoman property among one another as part of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
But during the war, differences between the main allies, Russia’s exit from the alliance after the communist revolution in 1917 and Turkey’s war of independence which began in 1919, forced Britain and France to search for a new vision for the region which would be conceived in the San Remo Agreement of 1920.
According to the agreement, former Ottoman territories were divided into entities based on a European conception of the nation state and were subject, directly and indirectly, to British or French authority.
There was no internal logic or historical and geographic consideration, nor did the people of the Orient have any say on drawing of these new borders. The logic used was entirely foreign.
Britain, for instance, wanted to ensure its control of Egypt and the Suez Canal and to secure an alternative route to the waterway that would extend from the east Mediterranean to Basra. France, on the other hand, invoked the legacy of the Crusades to legitimise its claim of hegemony over the Levant.
The notion of a Jewish national homeland was developed within Whitehall circles far away from the indigenous population or Arab leaders who had allied themselves with Britain. Eventually, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent his letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, later to be known as the Balfour declaration.
As soon as French troops seized control of their portion of the Levant, they decided to carve a pocket out of their area of influence to establish a state where Christian political authority could be asserted. And Lebanon was established.
The Emirate of Transjordan was born out of a series of accidents in the clamour after the Ottoman defeat, the British-French take-over and the British commitment to the creation of a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
Families torn apart
Tribes and families found themselves torn apart across the borders of the new states. Political regimes rose without any legitimacy to underpin them. Conflicts over power and territory soon flared up, even before the first foreign troops left.
Historic economic systems collapsed and entities lacking the minimum conditions for survival and development emerged.
It was only natural for popular resistance movements – the 1920 revolution in Iraq, the Grand Syrian revolution, Al-Buraq Revolution in Palestine and the Great Revolution from 1936 to 1939 – to explode in the face of the new regional order right at the beginning.
These movements forced European imperialist powers to withdraw partially and sign conditional independence treaties before national independence was eventually attained with the departure of foreign troops.
The British and French plan for the Orient after World War One turned out to be a disaster for the people of the Orient and the states born out of their vision.
Yet the British approval of the creation of the Arab League, at a moment when France was weak and absent, was the most significant measure of change in the regional order.
A Sykes-Picot band-aid
Despite the obvious deficiencies of the league, its creation acknowledged that the nation-state system set up on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire did not meet people’s aspirations, and would never gain legitimacy.
The organisation, it was implied, was needed so that the nation state would continue and endure.
During the second half of the 20th century, especially as more countries gained their independence, the battle over the future of the Arabs was further complicated. The conflict with Israel flared, superpowers competed among one another in the Cold War and, as a result, many ambitious national projects were launched, all contributing to the fate of Arabs.
In a handful of cases, the Arab League contributed to the independence of what remained of Arab states, such as the countries of the Arab Maghreb and South Yemen, and in certain instances, helped calm internal Arab disputes.
However, the order represented by the Arab League was unable to provide protection from indirect foreign influence, nor could it bolster Arab cooperation, nor drive development and prosperity.
During the decades that followed the league’s establishment, the Arab arena witnessed additional changes to the regional order. Perhaps the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Maghreb Union were the most significant of these changes.
The Maghreb Union did not operate for long as a result of the constant disagreements among its member states. However, despite the dangers facing GCC states – whether from within the region or from neighbours – and despite the policy differences among its six member states, the GCC was able to remain viable.
Since 2011, the Arab revolutions – which have pitted the forces of change, on the one hand, against the forces of counter-revolution, on the others – have reflected increasing signs of the brittleness of the post-WWI regional order, the Arab League and its raison d’etre.
Some regimes have collapsed completely. Civil wars have fragmented communities. Some Arab states have preferred to ally with Turkey rather than with their Arab sister states. Meanwhile, Iran has dominated others including Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
With the escalation of the conflict over the Arab soul and future, the borders of many of these states have lost all meaning. The Arab League has been unable to play any effective role during the phase of popular revolutions against ruling regimes, nor in the conflict that flared from the counter-revolutionary pushback.
The Bahraini popular uprisings were repressed. Accusations levelled at Iran that it was messing with Bahrain’s security led to the mobilisation of Saudi troops on the small island placing it under the Saudi security umbrella.
Despite the involvement of several Gulf states in the counter-revolution, many started viewing the GCC – with Saudi Arabia as the council’s main centre of gravity – as the sole remaining hope for the return of some order and stability to the chaotic Arab environ.
The Gulf crisis has put an end to these illusions. Just like other regional institutions, the GCC is suffering an actual collapse. The crisis has not only exposed a division between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Qatar. It has also uncovered a wide rift between two camps: one camp that includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, and another that includes Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.
Even if mediation efforts manage to contain the crisis and find a resolution, it is highly doubtful that the GCC will be able to regain its health. This is the last episode in the slow collapse of the post-WWI regional order.
This article was first published by MiddleEastEye