The Arab World: A new regional order?
Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 15 Dec 2020
The selection of the next secretary-general of the Arab League will serve as a lightning rod for changes in the Arab regional order

Ahmed Abul-Gheit’s term as Arab League secretary-general ends in May 2021, which means Cairo will have to decide early next year whether it will push for a second Abul-Gheit term or seek backing for another candidate. The cut-off point for the decision will be the next Arab summit, tentatively scheduled for late March 2021.

“Even if the summit is skipped, as happened in 2020 because of coronavirus, Arab leaders will have to agree before the end of Abul-Gheit’s mandate on who will be the next secretary-general,” said an Arab League source.

Since it was formed in March 1945, the Cairo-headquartered Arab League has always had an Egyptian secretary-general, the exception being between 1979 and 1990 when, in response to president Anwar Al-Sadat’s peace deal with Israel, an extraordinary Arab summit decided to move the organisation to Tunis.

According to informed government sources, Cairo is keen to maintain the tradition of Egyptian secretary-generals. Yet, as one source noted, “it may not be so easy this time round.”

There is no obvious shoo-in candidate, making it likely that Cairo will press for a new mandate for Abul-Gheit rather than lobby for a new candidate, given that “with the Arab League it is always easier to keep the status quo than propose change.”

But what of the Arab Gulf states whose financial support pays for the Arab League’s secretariat?

Gulf capitals first began hinting that the secretary-generalship be rotated before the 2011 January uprising, and the suggestion won the support of some North African Arab states. It is a call that is likely to have gained urgency given the growing regional political and economic role of some Gulf countries.

Cairo-based Western diplomats say it is no longer viable to argue Egypt should monopolise the post given it is no longer the Arab region’s sole leading player and the influence of the UAE and Saudi Arabia (KSA) is increasingly being felt.

In recent months, Abu Dhabi has taken the lead in promoting a fast-tracked process of Arab-Israeli normalisation, arguing that the time is over for Arab countries to continue sacrificing potential security and economic gains by insisting on a boycott of Israel when the Palestinian leadership is unrealistic about the nature of a possible deal with Israel.

Since the signing of normalisation deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain at the White House in September, several Arab capitals have come round to Abu Dhabi’s view.

Sudan secured a normalisation deal that saw it removed from the US list of states supporting terrorism on Monday. Last week Morocco also signed a normalisation deal, the quid pro quo being US recognition of the Western Sahara as Moroccan territory.

According to Israeli press reports, Oman is next in line. The reports are confirmed by Cairo-based Western sources who say Mauritania and Djibouti are also likely normalisation candidates.

A statement by Trump’s aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner about possible normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, long dubbed the “big prize”, is considered premature by most Arab and foreign sources, though they add that Riyadh will come round sooner or later.

Whoever becomes the next Arab League secretary-general will have to deal with these fluctuating dynamics of regional power politics. In press statements late last week, Abul-Gheit himself said that Arab countries need to come together to discuss how to accommodate the changes.

Abul-Gheit’s appeal was met with silence in Arab capitals. In the words of one Arab League diplomat, it is becoming “absurd” to talk of anything that might resemble a regional Arab regime. “We have to juggle like mad to get anything passed. I am not talking about big political decisions, but anything, even small decisions on socio-economic cooperation.”

Growing speculation about reconciliation between Qatar and the four Arab countries — Egypt, the UAE, KSA, and Bahrain — that imposed a boycott on Doha in 2017, is not viewed with optimism in Arab diplomatic quarters. While the Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah said his country is determined to push ahead with attempts to secure Gulf Cooperation Council reconciliation, Arab diplomatic sources suggest the most that can be hoped for is a symbolic gesture between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In Cairo, sources say the reconciliation may end up including all four boycotting countries, but will be “superficial” rather than “partial”: ie, it could end the air embargo which has forced Doha to rely on Iran for air access in and out of Qatar, but it will go no further.

Arab and Western diplomatic sources stress the problems with the regional order are not limited to the Qatar-Arab Quartet dispute. There are increasing tensions between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara. There are disputes between those countries that want to see the wholesale elimination of political Islam and those which prefer a limited integration of Islamists.

There are also splits over the scope and speed of normalisation between Arab countries with longstanding relations with Israel and those who are just signing deals, and divisions over alliances with other regional and international powers.

American University in Cairo professor of political science Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed says “accelerated normalisation with Israel” offers some Arab countries “specific short-term gains that might include military and security cooperation”. In contrast, Arab reconciliation, which would involve Arab capitals working to end their differences, “offers no such simple gains”.

Tellingly, Al-Sayed adds the outgoing US administration is throwing its weight behind normalisation and not in favour of Arab reconciliation.

Not, says Al-Sayed, that the perceived dichotomy between normalisation and reconciliation, however reluctant, is really the problem. The issue, he argues, “is rather a lack of vision” of how to reconfigure the Arab regime.

“Most Arab capitals today are too focused on specific threats which they perceive as existential. It’s not really right to assume that the UAE or KSA are readying themselves to take the lead from Egypt. Neither country seems ready with a vision of a new Arab regime or, for that matter, appears interested in working on one.”

Al-Sayed agrees that Egypt’s economic challenges and internal political concerns have stymied its traditional leadership of the Arab world, yet a strong contender for the historic role that Egypt played has yet to emerge.

“Any effective regional grouping needs a strong political — not just economic — state. Just think of the role of the US vis-à-vis NATO. When US interest in NATO declined the power of NATO declined.”

That said, Al-Sayed believes the most influential Arab countries may still think it in their interest to compete over the seat of the Arab League secretary-general. “It is not because the Arab League is of any significance today, or because anybody cares about giving the Arab League a push. It is simply that the organisation seems to have a life of its own and nobody seems willing to say it has become too irrelevant to continue.”

Arab capitals might therefore find it “somehow prestigious” to see one of their nationals become Arab League secretary-general, or at the least to have a say who gets the post.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly.