The Arab League has not succeeded in unifying the Arab world. Since Arab states are deeply divided on issues such as Iran, Islamism or Israel, some argue that the Arab League is a name without a meaning; others that it is under U.S. dictation; and still others that it continues to struggle with disunity and dysfunction. This general sentiment has been fostered by the Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) normalisation of August 2020 which, as many Twitter users claimed, represents a “death certificate” to the Arab unity – that is, the irrevocable coup to this unity which allegedly ends any hope.
It can be argued that the Arab League’s dysfunction is due in large part to the dilution of its normative structure. To support that, it is necessary to focus on the two norms that have laid the foundations of the League – unity and sovereignty – and argue that the contradictions which lie in these foundations have impeded the League from being truly effective. A case is made that these contradictions ended with the prevalence of sovereignty upon unity. This came along with a weakening of the League in dealing with mediation or conflict management. Finally, the sovereignty norm itself has faced inconsistencies which continue to weaken the League’s normative structure. Difficult, then, to find the possibility of a coherent “Arab Union”.
At the end of WW II, the struggles for independence re-emerged from where it stopped before the war – e.g. Iraq in 1932. These led to a period of decolonisation movements in the Arab world: Lebanon (1943), Syria (1946) Jordan (1946), Libya (1951), to name a few. The legal principle of uti possidetis juris, through which Arab states could assert ‘the inviolability of their boundaries from external interference’, had accelerated the importance given to the sovereignty norm in the Arab world. Colonial powers were then simultaneously rejected yet considered as a model to follow embodied by the Westphalian structure. In the meantime, another norm has recovered some influence: the Arab unity. Drawn from the Nahda – the Arab Renaissance – and encouraged by independence movements and the Palestinian cause, the notion of a shared Arab identity gave force to the unifying ideology of pan-Arabism – i.e. the maximalist version of Arab nationalism. Eventually, this identity seems to have ‘prioritised independence from and unity against these [Western] non-Arab actors’.
Therefore, in 1945, the Arab League was built upon the conjunction of these two norms, sovereignty and unity. Initially, the League was indeed viewed as ‘a prelude to Arab identity’ after having escaped from colonial domination; and sovereignty was considered as a necessary means by Arab nationalists. Constructivist scholars go further in explaining the League’s foundations. They contend that the mutually constitutive relation between international organisations and its member states sheds light on the identity of both the Arab League and Arab states. In particular, unity and sovereignty norms were constitutive of Arab states, meaning that they were part of their identities and interests. Whilst the unity norm was the expression of a shared belief in a common destiny – pan-Arabism –, the sovereignty one was the condition for head states to ‘legitimise their regimes’. These norms were then central parameters in the sense that they were necessary to make the League emerge.
Within the normative structure of the League, the centrality of these norms also lies in their regulative function. As Griffiths stated: ‘international institutions have both regulative and constitutive functions. First, although the Arab League’s Charter does not clarify what is an Arab state, the ethno-cultural criteria to enter it seems beyond doubt. Thus, it can be argued that the unity norm is regulative since only Arab states are eligible for pan-Arabism ideology. Concerning the second norm, sovereignty is also regulative as officially stipulated in the Charter: ‘safeguard their independence and sovereignty’. Finally, these two norms have been central to build the Arab League, constituting and regulating Arab states behaviour. Yet, a contradiction lies in this centrality and will lead a norm to prevail on the other.
The League, in its practice, has sought to encapsulate the contradiction between the Westphalian structure – encouraged by the governing elite – and pan-Arabism. As some argued, Arab nationalism pushed ‘Arab states to embrace the rhetoric of Arab unity […], and to fear Arab unity in practice because it would impose greater restriction on their sovereignty’. Indeed, pan-Arabism precisely denies the legitimacy of states and, thereby, their sovereignty. The creation of the Federation of Arab Republics in 1972, made up of Egypt, Libya and Syria, well illustrates the incompatibility between unity and sovereignty aspirations: this union lasted barely six years. Likewise, the union between Egypt and Syria, which started in 1958, ended in 1961.
At the end of the 1970s, the contradiction between these two foundational norms reached the point of no return with the prevalence of sovereignty upon Arab unity. The first blow against unity came when Sadat, the Egyptian President, signed in 1979 a separate Peace Treaty with Israel that excluded other Arab states. Realism is useful to understand this shift in Egyptian interests. Here, the material structure reflected by the self-help principle – namely, defending Egyptian interests first and exiting from the state of war – prevailed on the normative structure: the Arab unity. Finally, the coup de grâce to pan-Arabism was given by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Then, the collapse of the unity norm that followed these two geopolitical facts weakened the normative structure of the Arab League which, for some, ‘would never truly recover’. This latter feeling may be explained by a second contradiction that the League will face: sovereignty per se restricts the mandate of the League.
The sovereignty norm, which both constitutes and regulates Arab League states’ behaviour, has indeed particularly constrained its practice. To deal with mediation and conflict management in the Arab world, the League is as limited as its member states are because any intervention in a member state might be seen as a violation of the sovereignty norm. This logic can explain the African Union decision, in 2003, to modify its rule about sovereignty in order to allow intervention within its member states. The argument advanced was to ease the practice of defending democracy. With this empowerment of an international organisation similar to the League, many critics emerged in the Arab world against the constraint of non-intervention. Thus, a parallel could be drawn between the African Union decision and, in the same year, the interference of the Arab League in the Iraqi political process – as if intervention was becoming tacitly possible. Indeed, in the name of Arab identity, the League openly criticised the Iraqi Governing Council for allowing Kurds and Shia to build a regional autonomy in Iraq. Therefore, being more and more violated, the sovereignty norm seemed to gradually lose its prevalence during the 2000s, until almost completely in 2011.
Scholars tend to agree on qualifying the year 2011 as a ‘major change’ regarding the Arab League policy of intervention, even though some interventions occurred in the past such as in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war. The second foundational norm, sovereignty, was strongly marginalised in the salient case of Libya. In the context of the civil war, the League condemned mass killings for the first time, something that it did not do before with, for instance, Saddam Hussein’s crimes in Iraq. More than this, the League was deeply involved in enforcing the United Nations’ norm of Responsibility to Protect. Indeed, its endeavour to push for a no-fly zone above Libya, claiming that Gaddafi’s government had lost its sovereignty, illustrates well this policy change. This push, together with many other negotiations, led to the adoption of the resolution 1973 authorising an intervention to protect Libyan civilians. Thus, it is interesting to notice that despite the decline of its two foundational norms and the consequent confusion of its normative structure, the League still succeeded in reaching positive outcomes. The case of Libya mentioned above (2011), the creation of the Arab Peace Initiative for the Palestinian cause (2002) or the role of mediator the League played in the Lebanese crisis (2008), all are instances of relative successes that some scholars put forward.
But to conclude, these fragile achievements should not hide the substantive contradictions that lies in the normative structure of the Arab League: two foundational norms have lost their centrality and, therefore, undermined this international organisation. The more salient example might be its ‘complete inability to deal with active civil wars,’ which have turned into humanitarian disasters. Thus, the Arab League has probably missed the opportunity to embody a genuine union that would at least, such as the European Union, guarantee peace among its members. It is a pity given that the Arab world is the only place on Earth where so different countries share as many attributes as they do – a common language, to name the most obvious one. The weakening of the League’s normative has blurred the overall mandate of this organisation.
 Raymond Hinnebusch, “Identity in International Relations: Constructivism versus Materialism and the Case of the Middle East,” The Review of International Affairs (2003): 360.
 Farah Dakhlallah, “The League of Arab States and Regional Security: Towards an Arab Security Community?”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2013): 399. https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2012.726489.
 Michael Barnett and Etel Solingen, “Designed to Fail or Failure of Design? The Origins and Legacy of the Arab League,” in Crafting Cooperation: Regional Institutions in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2007),181. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491436.006.
 Martin Griffiths, Fifty key thinkers in international relations, (London: Routledge, 2009), 123.
 Barnett and Solingen, “Designed to fail”: 181.
 Dakhlallah, “The League”: 404.
 Ibid: 400.
 In Luke Glanville, “Does R2P matter? Interpreting the impact of a norm,” Cooperation and Conflict (2016): 188.
Kévin Thiévon is currently pursuing an MA in International Affairs at King’s College London. He previously graduated from EDHEC Business School and worked in the defense sector. His main research interests focus on conflicts in the Middle East (where he lived), and on the role of social movements against nation-states.