Arab Summit: Non-traditional environment leads to golden opportunity

Mohamed Fayez Farahat
Monday 22 May 2023

The quick consensus on Syria's return expresses the Arab will to end divisions over internal transformations and decline of the Arab Spring as a basis for polarization.


Despite significant efforts to establish international organizations such as the League of Nations and later the United Nations as practical frameworks for world governance, the emergence of regional organizations as more suitable frameworks for addressing regional specificities has persisted.  

This has led to the establishment of numerous regional organizations such as the European Union, the African Union, ASEAN, and the Arab League, among others. The success of these regional experiments in achieving their members’ aspirations has varied.  

This variation can be attributed to several factors, including the nature of the aspirations themselves, the gap between aspirations and political, economic, and security realities, as well as the relationship between the regional and global systems including major powers. In other words, the development and success of regional organizations depend on the interaction between these three main variables.

The Arab League has been influenced by these factors. It began with high Arab ambitions and acted as an arena revealing some Arab-Arab crises and divisions at certain stages. Undoubtedly, the League has also been affected by the relationship between the Middle East, the global system, and major powers at different stages. Some powers acted as major regional actors to promote certain policies, leading to instability or dominance in managing security challenges.

The Arab League has worked for decades under very complex circumstances. However, the League and major Arab powers deserve credit for preserving this important entity since its establishment in 1945. 

Observers of the Arab League's recent movement argue that the League is witnessing a new adaptive phase to increase its effectiveness and assume greater responsibility in managing Arab issues and interests. The most prominent aspects of this adaptation are capitalizing on international fluidity to regain control of regional management, adapting to non-traditional security challenges, and working to end the negative legacy of the Arab Spring.

Before discussing these transformations, two observations should be emphasized. First, the success of the League in managing these transformations results from the interaction between the League's Secretariat-General under Ahmed Aboul Gheit's leadership and the will and diplomacy of major Arab powers. Second, these transformations are still in their early stages, requiring additional efforts to enhance returns and strengthen the League's role.

Ending the negative legacy of the Arab Spring is a key feature of ongoing Arab movements in recent years that aim to end the security legacy of the Arab Spring, which imposed immense political, economic, security and cultural costs on Arab states and societies, including the rise of terrorist organizations, militias, state collapse, civil wars, internally displaced persons, and refugees.

Some Arab countries have initiated a corrective trajectory, such as Egypt and Tunisia, through national projects. Syria succeeded in preserving the state against terrorism but at high costs including international and regional influence, sovereignty, and economic and human costs. 

Regionally, the involvement of major powers in neighbouring countries, whether through military intervention under UN cover or not, has multiplied. An Arab project to end the negative legacy of the Arab Spring is now observed, notably the intensive Arab diplomatic efforts to reintegrate Syria, leading to the decision to end Syria's membership freeze and invite President Bashar Al-Assad to the summit.

This goes beyond ending the freeze; it is part of an Arab process to address the dangerous legacy of the Arab Spring, especially terrorism, militias, refugees, and drug trafficking. The quick consensus on Syria's return expresses the Arab will to end divisions over internal transformations and decline of the Arab Spring as a basis for polarization. Syria's return is necessary to help dismantle sources of international and regional influence, as emphasized by President Al-Assad.

The Syrian case illustrates this new Arab direction, which does not imply a parallel project against democracy, decent living, or social justice associated with the Arab Spring. However, achieving these goals should not demolish states and institutions. There are other ways to achieve these goals that give additional credit to reform over revolutions and preserve the nation-state. Twelve years of experience with the Arab Spring have provided some lessons.


Adapting to non-traditional security challenges: For a long time, traditional security issues dominated the Arab League agenda, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, relations with neighbours, and terrorism. Successive internal crises since 2011 (Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan) have imposed themselves on summit agendas until now.

Without diminishing the importance of these issues or implying their declining significance, the Arab League has recently discussed issues like Arab food security, water security, climate change, and cybersecurity, increasing in importance due to several factors.

The Russia-Ukraine war has posed economic challenges, especially food security, with growing interest in "food sovereignty" -- the right of each country to determine its food policy and strategies while respecting its cultures and systems in managing natural resources and rural areas. Embracing "food sovereignty" may complicate the reliance on international markets, as shown in the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war.

Negative water practices by some neighbours have challenged Arab water rights, prompting the League to address Arab water security as a new national security dimension. Egypt and the UAE's role in engaging with climate change efforts, especially hosting COP27 and COP28, establishes an important Arab role in this field.

Exploiting current international fluidity to regain control of regional management: Regional organization effectiveness depends on the international system and regional-global relationships. The Arab League has been affected by the unipolar system since the 1990s. However, current fluidity provides an opportunity to utilize global shifts to ensure a pluralistic regional framework and readjust the relationship between the region, system, and powers. 

This includes reducing international intervention in regional affairs, as expressed by many Arab leaders. However, this requires significant collective and individual efforts to enhance this important recent trend. It is also important to establish clear joint policies regarding issues that have provided intervention opportunities over the past decade.

Acceptance of diverse Arab positions and interests: Arab countries are ready to accept diverse positions and interests on important issues. Two main dimensions can be highlighted:

First, there is no longer the preconception that Arab countries must adopt the same positions on particular issues or crises. Second, this diversity does not become conflicting. For example, some Arab countries have signed the Abraham Accords without significant problems. This does not mean diversity does not affect the level and extent of Arab-Arab interactions but that it is no longer associated with acute crises as before.

This shift results from several factors, notably the spread and distribution of power within the Arab region, the diversity of Arab interests globally, and the success of key Arab powers in creating broader spheres beyond the immediate Arab geography.

Thus, recent Arab League summits reflect indicators of an "Arab will" to exploit current transformations in the international structure and review many Arab policies. This aims to end polarization, the negative legacy of the Arab Spring, and rebuild the agenda of joint action to expand the League's role in dealing with new dimensions of Arab national security, including non-traditional threats like epidemics, transformative wars, water security, food security, and cybersecurity, without neglecting central Arab issues.  

This "new will" is the culmination of ongoing Arab efforts and policies in recent years. More of these are much needed.

* The writer is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies

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