The Arab League announced on Wednesday its unanimous stand against Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, one of the conditions Israel’s government has stipulated for successful peace talks with the Palestinians. The statement out of the Arab League summit in Kuwait this week reflects perhaps the only arena in which Arab governments remain united. Far from rallying regional solidarity, the annual forum has only highlighted the major rifts that continue to divide the Arab world.
Kuwait’s entreaty to Arab leaders, urging them to overcome and resolve these escalating disputes, shows no sign of having sunk in at the end of the two day conference with divisions over the three-year-old civil war in Syria and Egypt’s political crisis as sharp as ever. The united front displayed by the bloc against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back in 2011 is a far cry from the fierce rivalries now on display, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia putting their support behind different segments of the Syrian opposition, which itself remains in fragmented and divided. While member states were at least able to commit themselves to denouncing the killing of civilians in the war-torn country, more substantial action on the crisis was clearly out of the question.
Syria and Egypt may have been the most visible targets of the summit, but the escalating dispute among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states might as well have been on the agenda for how forcefully it has impacted dynamics among governments in the region. Qatar’s firm stance on its foreign policy, which has included supporting Islamists much to the displeasure of its Gulf allies, has only provoked a more combative stance from an uncharacteristically vocal Saudi Arabia. The aggressive approach the Gulf heavyweight has taken in responding to Doha’s disloyalty, including doubling down on its backing of Egypt’s military-led government and insisting on the closure of the Qatari-funded Al Jazeera television network, has only made the situation more fraught.
What is ironic is that Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed tactics are part of a strategy to rapidly unify Arab states in the face of Iran’s emergence on the international stage in the wake of its rapprochement with the West. Though it can be chalked up to lack of experience in exercising its geopolitical clout out in the open (the Kingdom has previously always favored a more behind-the-scenes approach), the Saudis’ efforts here have for the most part been a resounding, public failure. Rather than modify their tactics, Riyadh has only become more obstinate, making mediation efforts by quasi-neutral parties like Kuwait even more challenging.
The fallout from the Arab Spring may have left many of these governments scrambling to maintain their grips on power both domestically and regionally (or, in Qatar’s case, to ride the wave of a new rising power) but in the process of doing so, organizations like the Arab League have only weakened as competing national interests override the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. The best the regional bloc can hope for is new developments around its tried and true rallying point, the Israeli-Palestinian situation. But, even then, there is no guarantee that even regional enmity against Israel will be anywhere near enough to heal these rapidly widening rifts.