Middle East

Arab Spring revolution at the Arab League

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (L) and Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim (C) at the Arab League talks in Cairo, 12 November
Image caption Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim (C) is now a key figure at the League

For years the Arab League has been seen as a cosy club of Arab autocrats and dictators.

Ministerial meeting followed summit followed emergency summit, all having no apparent impact on the lives of ordinary Arabs in this troubled region.

But the Arab League headquarters are barely a couple of hundred metres from Tahrir Square, in central Cairo.

And the effect of the protests there, which unseated former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are still echoing round the marbled halls of the League.

In March the League voted in support of a no-fly zone over Libya. The move led directly to a UN resolution and subsequent Nato intervention. Without the Arab League vote, that would not have been possible.

Now in an almost equally dramatic step, the League has voted to suspend Syria from its work in response to the continuing violence in the country.

That means one of the standard-bearers of Arab nationalism, the Syrian Arab Republic, is now excluded from the body committed to Arab unity.

Members of the Syrian opposition - just the sort of activists whom the Arab League members happily ignored or repressed for years - are being invited to Arab League headquarters, for the League to help them co-ordinate their efforts.

All of this is being pushed forward not by the traditional Arab leader, Egypt, but by tiny Qatar, whose prime minister is chairman of the ministerial committee dealing with Syria.

The hard line towards Syria emanating from the Qatari capital, Doha, is almost equalled by the tough stand from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The diplomatic map of the Middle East is being redrawn almost as quickly as governments and regimes are falling.

Syria's immediate response has been to attack the League as a tool of the US.

That is an ironic charge indeed against a body that has been so hostile for so long to America's biggest ally in the region, the state of Israel.

In fact a more complicated dynamic is being played out.

Qatar's moment

Qatar is taking advantage of the turmoil in the region to seize its moment of leadership.

Other governments are deeply aware that their own survival could soon be at stake.

Even Saudi Arabia, where there have not been the demonstrations seen elsewhere, is deeply worried about the danger of the uprisings spreading to the Kingdom.

And this is only the beginning of the change.

If Bashar Assad loses the presidency of Syria, as almost all his Arab neighbours now believe will happen, Iran will lose its main foothold in the Arab world.

Other Arab countries will have to decide if they want to step in and provide support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

The new governments that have emerged in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are only beginning to change the equation in the League.

As they gain democratic legitimacy, and if revolutions succeed elsewhere, the dynamics of the League will change even further.

For years commentators said the League could not agree to act because it was so divided.

Now, in theory, it should be all the more divided between democracies and Arab autocracies.

Yet, remarkably, in recent months it has taken two of the most decisive moves in its 66 years of history.