The Arab region is subject to serious threats with consequences that could impact the global political and economic outlook, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League (AL), warned during the opening session of the AL’s foreign ministers meeting earlier this month after being re-elected for a second term, writes Doaa El-Bey.
Which makes it imperative, he argued, for Arab interests to be coordinated and expressed unanimously, putting in a nutshell the problems he faced during his first term as secretary-general since, in the words of a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, there is little to suggest the region possesses anything close to a unified will.
In Libya and Syria, the diplomat said, the major player in reconciliation efforts is the UN, not the AL, and in Yemen Saudi Arabia is battling other international parties.
In the five years Abul-Gheit has chaired the AL, the organisation’s intervention in Libya, Syria, and Yemen has been minimal. Even in the conflict between Qatar and its neighbouring Gulf states and Egypt, the AL’s influence has been negligible.
In his meeting with UN Special Envoy to Libya Jan Kubis this week, Abul-Gheit reiterated the AL’s support for efforts to reach a settlement to the Libyan crisis and hold legislative and presidential elections, scheduled for December this year.
He said the AL fully backed the UN’s role and its efforts “to maximise the joint and complementary work between the League and the United Nations in advancing the political, security and economic tracks”.
As Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, points out, it is the AL’s member states that ultimately determine the mandate of the pan-Arab organisation, and there are no signs “they want to give the AL an independent role or allow it to arbitrate in inter-Arab conflicts or regional crises.”
Hassan expects that in his second term Abul-Gheit will push for the resolution of the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution since it is one of the few areas that commands a consensus. “And given that there is international will behind resolving the crisis in Libya, I expect that the AL will play a role in coordinating with other players or take part in the rebuilding process afterwards.”
The AL secretary-general has, with very few exceptions, served two terms in the post and so it was important, says Hassan, for Cairo to nominate Abul-Ghiet. “Cairo wanted to maintain the custom that, as host of the headquarters of the Arab League, the seat of the secretary-general be occupied by one of its diplomats,” a status quo that had been challenged by some members in the Maghreb and Gulf regions that openly campaigned for the seat to be rotated among member states ahead of the selection of Nabil Al-Arabi as secretary-general in 2011.
Previous secretaries-general have all been Egyptian diplomats, with the exception of Al-Chazli Al-Kolaiby, the Tunisian diplomat, who occupied the post when the AL headquarters moved from Cairo to Tunis following the Arab boycott of Egypt after Anwar Al-Sadat signed the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Al-Arabi, Amr Moussa and Esmat Abdel-Meguid, all former Egyptian foreign ministers, have held the job.
Abul-Gheit’s second term starts June. Unusually, voting took place at the level of foreign ministers when in normal circumstances the vote would have happened at the regular annual Arab summit. Whether a summit will take place, though, is far from clear.
“It is obvious the pandemic has been used as a convenient pretext not to hold a regular summit which has, in any case, become little more than an exercise in procedure,” says the diplomat.
Few would question that the AL is in need of a major structural reform if the organisation is to regain its influence, and Hassan does not rule out that this will be the focus of Abul-Gheit’s second term in office.
The AL was established 75 years ago in very different circumstances, points out Hassan. “What it desperately needs now is greater financial support to help it carve out a viable role, and a mechanism by which resolutions can be taken by a majority and be binding on all members.”
Currently very few resolutions, restricted to minor issues, are binding on the basis of a 50 per cent plus one majority, and significant resolutions need a two-thirds majority.
The diplomat agreed there is a dire need for reform, as well as to establish mechanisms for regional conflict resolution and peace-keeping. “But once again,” he said, “the AL is hostage to the will of its member states, not to the wishes or efforts of its secretary-general.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly