For those who complain that the European Union (EU) is too monolithic in its decision making processes or that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) operates under decision making processes that are too slow, both south east Asians and Europeans should be thankful that their systems are vastly more functional than the Arab League – a multilateral body which happens to be older than both. Formed in Cairo in 1945 in order to foster greater unity among Arab states that were emerging from the shadows of imperial domination, the Arab League today represents little more than a gilded talking shop where Arab leaders engage in brief meetings whilst exchanging empty pleasantries, before going back to making war on one another, financing terror against one another, boycotting one another and publicly disparaging one another. Even the issue of Palestine – the single issue which more than any other ought to unite the Arab world, has largely been reduced to rhetoric that is empty of any action during Arab League summit after Arab League summit.
Observers of the developments in multilateral cooperation throughout the world might ask how this came about? After all, south east Asia and Europe are home to many different languages and even several different alphabets, whilst in the Arab world there is one mother tongue and one orthography. South east Asia and Europe do not have a clear majority of the population who practice one religion whilst in the Arab world, Islam is by far the dominant religious belief. South east Asia is home to many nations comprised of islands with differing histories whilst Europe is highly climatically varied between north and south. The Arab world by contrast is far more climatically and topographically similar than either south east Asia or Europe.
When asking Arabs why their leaders have become ever more disunited, one is offered every excuse imaginable ranging from the differences in Arabic dialects, to differing approaches to secularism vis-a-vis theocratic tendencies and one is even presented with robust defences of why Arab unity is impossible because Moroccan cuisine is different from Levantine cuisine whilst Gulfi entertainment is different than Lebanese music.
The Arabs making these excuses may well have forgotten that Singapore is a nation made up of three historically different and presently distinct racial groups that now live in harmony in one of the world’s most successful nations that happens to trade freely with other multi-racial and multi-cultural ASEAN partners including Malaysia and Indonesia. Such Arabs might also have forgotten that when Europeans got tired of killing each other based on divergences in Christian sects, the continent became ever more prosperous. Because the differences between Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are arguably greater than those between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam, the idea that a Sunni-Shi’a divide is the excuse for Arab disunity falls flat – not least because the Arab states boycotting Sunni Muslim Qatar happen to all be Sunni Islamic majority states. Beyond this, as most Arabs will happily state, it has only been over the last 25 or 30 years that there has been a discussion of a Sunnit-Shi’a divide. As recently as the mid 20th century, such a divide was not even articulated.
The fact of the matter is that national greed, cultural myopia and an attitude that combines the arrogance of empire with the victim complex of the colonised, continues to retard the progress of the Arab world. There is nothing that makes this so apparent as does the lack of energy devoted to improving the material condition of a single Arab people, as is displayed time after time during meetings of the Arab league.
Thus, whilst the Arabs were united in the past and whilst the necessary elements that foster unity are stronger in the Arab world than in south east Asia or Europe, when it comes to disunity, infighting feuding and even trans-national sabotage, the Arabs have excelled like no other recognised group of people in the world.
Yet when Europeans were living in a Dark Age, the Arab world was pioneering mathematics, medicine, architecture, agriculture and equitable legal systems. Likewise, when technology was such that unifying the lands of south east Asia seemed to be an impossible task, the Arab Caliphates grow strong and prosperous through supreme unity. Today however, the cause of Arab unity is rarely even discussed, even though in its early decades, the Arab League was designed to serve as a forum to enhance cooperation and pave the way towards a more united Arab world.
Of all the problems facing the Arab world ranging from controlling extremism, to closing the wealth gap between nations like Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Yemen on the other and working to diversify the wider economic portfolio of oil rich Arab states – unity could provide the answer to all of these problems. If the Arab world united to form a single federation or confederation, it would be the third largest state in the world, behind China and India and just ahead of the United States. Because of its energy wealth, its access to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, its attractive climate and a younger population overall than in Europe, such a United Arab Federation would be a global superpower.
But instead of aspiring to superpower status, Arab leaders and even ordinary Arabs aspire to far less. The Arab League could be one of the most powerful bodies in modern history but instead it looks more like a club of forced smiles and embraces that last only long enough to temporarily stop to cloak and dagger politics that tragically defines relations between far too many Arab states.