For years the Arab League has been a symbol of the incompetence and impotence of the Arab states. Every time there has been a major issue in the Muslim world, the League has met and done absolutely nothing of note. Yet now, for some reason, the summit that is taking place in Riyadh at the end of March (as this issue of Crescent goes to press) is being hailed around the world as crucial for the future of the region. The explanation is not hard to find: a radical change in the strategies by which the real powers in the region aim to achieve their objectives. The reason that the Arab League has been so impotent in the past is that the US has totally ignored it, and so it has had no standing or influence. Now, the US has decided to use the Arab League as part of a new strategy in the region; so suddenly the kings and colonels of the Arab world can strut their stuff and feel important again.
The reasons for this change are not hard to see: the failure of the US’s previous strategies in the three key issues it is facing in the region. In Palestine, the Israelis (whose interests the US represents in dealings with Arab countries) have failed to break the Palestinians’ spirit by military repression and economic boycott, and failed to persuade them to support a compromising Fatah government instead of Hamas. And, as so often in the past, as one approach fails, and they are confronted with having to deal with Palestinian representatives that they do not like, they have changed tack and are trying to find new representatives who might prove easier to deal with, in this case the Arab rulers. The Arab states’ promotion of the Saudi peace plan from 2002 (also known as the Beirut Declaration) can only be with the US’s approval. The US/Israeli intention is probably to treat this plan precisely as they treated all the agreements made during the “peace process” of the 1990s: to demand that the Palestinians immediately do everything that the plan requires of them, while being careful not to commit to anything themselves, and totally ignoring any commitment that they do make.
In Iraq, the US is mired in a war it cannot win, and hopes that the Arab rulers can help find them a face-saving exit strategy. A clear part of this strategy is to blame all Iraq’s problems on the influence of “external forces”, particularly Iran; and, linking with the US’s third major concern in the region, to make this a part of a wider campaign for the vilification and demonisation of Iran as a precursor to action against it sometime before the end of Bush’s presidency next year. At the same time (this is where the Arab League comes in) other Muslim countries, the Arab ones in particular, are being marshalled as a “Sunni” bloc against the “Shi‘i crescent” led by Iran. As with the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the US is playing a long game, with a gradual increase of political pressure and the building of a case for action. It knows that Muslims generally will never support its plans, but evidently hopes that the support of Arab regimes will help offset and suppress popular opposition to another US aggression against a Muslim country, this time an Islamic one.
The rehabilitation of the Arab League (almost a resurrection, in fact) demonstrates for whom the Arab rulers really work. In the West they are portrayed as the “moderates” of the Muslim world: the reasonable Muslims that the West can work with, as opposed to the extremists and Islamists. But the Ummah immediately recognises them for what they really are: agents of the West -- in other words, the US -- who have been given a new role as part of a new strategy for pursuing the usual Western interests. No one will be fooled, not even the players themselves. They know their own true worth, and it is not very much.