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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March 2005, 17:14 GMT
Summits that showcase Arab disunity
By Heba Saleh
BBC News

Arab League summit in Algiers
Some analysts say the League is too weak to make big decisions
"The Arabs have agreed not to agree."

That is the cynical refrain often heard on Arab streets when the region's leaders hold their annual summit.

Arab public opinion has long learnt that these Arab League summits are almost invariably disappointing.

On many occasions they have been marred by public disputes which showcase Arab disunity rather than its intended opposite.

Last year, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi stormed out of the opening session criticising almost everyone else attending.

The year before he exchanged insults with the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah.

That was during the Sharm al-Sheikh summit held about two weeks before the American invasion of Iraq.

It was another divided meeting which failed to come up with anything beyond a feeble expression of support for Baghdad.

The US had already arranged to launch its military campaign from the territories of Iraq's Arab neighbours.

Weak and unenforceable

Most summits have tended to conclude with the adoption of watered-down resolutions which the leaders seem to forget the moment they walk out of the meeting hall.

Arab League rules dictate that resolutions have to gain the unanimous backing of all member states before they can be adopted.

This elderly institution has been deaf to every big event because that is the best way of escaping responsibility
Saudi commentator Abdul Rahman al-Rashed
The need to satisfy everyone often translates into weak and unenforceable decisions.

It also means inter-Arab disputes can rarely be effectively addressed.

In the current summit, which comes as the League celebrates its 60th anniversary, the crisis surrounding the Syrian presence in Lebanon is simply not an item on the formal agenda.

That is because neither Damascus nor its client government in Beirut have placed it there.

Dream remains

The omission provoked scathing criticism from the prominent Saudi columnist Abdul Rahman al-Rashed.

"The Arab League has become used to treating the patient's wounds only after his death," wrote Mr Rashed.

"This elderly institution has been deaf to every big event because that is the best way of escaping responsibility.

"But it can also be said that the art of avoidance has killed the Arab League."

But even if the Arab public is only too aware of the weakness of the League and its inability to incarnate a strong and united Arab position, they have not abandoned the dream that one day the Arab world will be able to act in concert.

There are no calls to dismantle the League, only a frustrated popular desire to see it lay the ground for some form of closer Arab co-operation, if not Arab unity.

'Bar too high'

But some commentators say that people expect too much from the organisation.

"Those who imagined that the League would resolve the Palestinian problem or achieve Arab unity have been placing the bar too high," said Abdul Moneim Said, the director of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"The Arab League has succeeded in creating a forum for Arab countries to come together and express their views to the world.

Arab League summit in Algiers
Overshadowing all talks is the requirement to reach consensus
"But it is an organisation of sovereign states, each of which only represents itself."

There is little doubt, however, that the League's effectiveness as a regional organisation has been hampered by divisions between members.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent war in which Arab forces were part of the US-led coalition which freed the emirate split the organisation for more than a decade.

Deep rifts

On many occasions, Arab governments have decided that their national interests were better served by having strong relations with the US even if it angered other Arab countries.

Divisions over the US invasion of Iraq in 1991 was one example.

Another which also caused deep rifts within the Arab League was Egypt's decision in 1978 to seek peace with Israel and closer ties with the US.

Arab governments are aware of the need to strengthen the organisation.

So far, however, they do not appear to have agreed on any substantial steps.

One reform under discussion in Algiers has been the establishment of an appointed Arab parliament attached to the organisation.

The measure was adopted in the final summit communique, but analysts have dismissed the proposal as laughable.

They say without first introducing democracy within member states, it will be futile to establish what will be become just another pointless talking shop.

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