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Who exactly are the Arab League?

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Robin Lustig | 10:57 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

If there had been no statement from the Arab League backing the idea of a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya, there would have been no UN Security Council resolution 1973 (Russia and China would have vetoed it; the US would almost certainly not have backed it.)

And if there had been no Security Council resolution, there would have been no warplanes or cruise missiles attacking Muammar Gaddafi's military machine.

So it's worth looking in some detail at who exactly are the League of Arab States. There are 22 of them in total (21 at the moment, as Libya's membership has been suspended.) Total population: around 350 million; richest member (measured by GDP per capita): Qatar, which is also, on this measure, the richest country in the world; poorest: Somalia, which on the same measure is the world's fifth poorest.

When the League issued its statement calling on the UN to put in place a no-fly zone (Algeria and Syria voted against), the secretary-general Amr Moussa said: "It has one goal: to protect the civilian population."

The statement said nothing about wanting to encourage democracy or freedom in Libya, and you don't have to dig too deep to see why not.

According to the Democracy Index drawn up every year by the Economist Intelligence Unit, only two members of the Arab League (Lebanon and Palestine, which isn't even an internationally-recognised state) make it into the top 100 of the world's democracies.

That qualifies them, under the EIU criteria, as "hybrid" forms of government, some way below either "full democracies" or "flawed democracies". The remaining 20 Arab League governments are classified as "authoritarian".

According to the Freedom in the World Index, drawn up by the think tank Freedom House, no member of the Arab League qualifies as free. Only three (Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco) qualify as "partly free"; the rest are "not free".

It is possible that Egypt and Tunisia will emerge over the coming months into fully functioning democracies. The picture in countries like Bahrain, Yemen, Syria - and Libya - is still far too uncertain to be able to guess what kind of future lies in store for their people.

And of course, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two of the countries that voted in favour of the Arab League's no fly zone statement, are also now providing troops for Bahrain, to help the government bring an end to the pro-reform protests there.


  • Comment number 1.

    In a weird start to a weird war, we have the (curious) case of the Arab League's role in facilitating the creation of a no fly zone over Libya. In a comment on a previous article, "Libya: now what?", I noted that not only was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opposed to the NFZ but in discussions on CNN, numerous former flag rank officers including former NATO Supreme commander Gen Wesley Clark came out in opposition to a NFZ as well. Lately, we have learned that President Obama was reluctant to join allies France and the UK as well. His close advisors on the National Security Council staff were also opposed to a NFZ. He needed convincing in the face of all of this high level opposition. The clinching argument apparently was provided by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton either before or after the critical meeting between the allies in Paris. There apparently were two members of the NSC who wanted the US in the NFZ coalition, one of whom was Samantha Powers, the humanitarian advocate from Harvard. The weird and interesting thing about Samantha Powers is that during the presidential primary campaign in 2007-8, Powers was forced to resign from Obama's campaign after she reportedly referred to Hillary Clinton as a "monster." Now returning to the Arab League, it is interesting that after a few days of bombing by French Mirage jet fighters, in which apparently some "civilians" were hit, the Arab League criticized the NFZ coalition for not being more careful about who they were bombing. The question immediately comes up about why the Arab League is so sensitive about how the war is being conducted by the coalition, when they approved of the NFZ action in the first place, and are surely aware of the difficulty of how French fighter pilots can distinguish between combatants and civilians in a civil war. The answer to this question is found in the extraordinary revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt this year and the tumultuous ongoing rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen. What has happened is that for the first time in the Arab states, the opinions of an emerging democratically aroused population is beginning to matter to the rulers. To add to this discomfort being felt at the Arab League is the ambition of men like president Amr Moussa who is planning to run for the presidency of Egypt in the upcoming open and openly conducted elections.

  • Comment number 2.

    How important is it to be an Arab? How important is it for an Arab to protect fellow Arabs? History says it is not important at all. Who is trying to protect the Palestinian Arabs? Iran. Non Arabs.

  • Comment number 3.

    Robin: “The statement said nothing about wanting to encourage democracy or freedom in Libya”

    A hardly surprising statement. The history of Islamic Maghreb and the Middle East was full of attempts for a model ‘singular’ leadership of their Islamic peoples. After the proselytising conquests by Peninsular Arabs, there were a succession of Berbers, Kurds, Mamluks, Persians and Ottomans dynastic empires. In a more modern era, the defunct United Arab Republic led Nasser; Ba’ath Socialism, co-founded by a Christian Arab Michael Affleck, as a response to Arabic Islam fundamentalism; The Muslim Brotherhood; Iranian Islamic Revolution and, then, Al-Qaida.

    Why should there be the championing of democracy when according to Democracy Index : “20 Arab League governments are classified as "authoritarian".” And “Only three (Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco) qualify as "partly free"; the rest are "not free".” as per the Freedom in the World Index.

    But, I could understand and empathise with Arab League’s vote for a NFZ in Libya. Gaddafi’s Green Revolution, in particular, is just not a political ideology that they want. We have to take at face-value what they don’t like and do not expect this dislike means an automatic like for democracy. Even perhaps, they just dislike personally the man, Gaddafi.


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