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Reassessing the Role of the Arab League in the 21st Century Arab World

Session VI-14, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel takes the opportunity to bring together a range of perspectives on the League of Arab States (LAS), an organisation which stands as an important actor and forum in regional politics, despite its detractors. This is especially the case given its importance in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring. The panel aims to foster a discussion and reassessment of the League as an organisation which remains active in many spheres and yet which is so often dismissed in much of the academic literature as a failure. By focusing on the ways the Arab League is capable of reflecting broader opinions beyond the governments of its member states and showing how the LAS makes frequent use of human rights for legitimation, this panel demonstrates that the Arab League is still an important node in wider processes of regionalisation in the Arab world and that it does care about how it is perceived beyond the region. Further developing this reasoning, the panel demonstrates how the LAS has managed to remain relevant amid the multitude of actors involved in mediation and attempts at conflict resolution in Libya/Yemen/Syria and what space it should occupy in any course dedicated to the study of the contemporary Arab world.
International Relations/Affairs
  • The surprising rebirth of the Arab League and the emergence of both the League and the GCC onto the international stage promoting varied types of humanitarian intervention in both Libya and Syria, as well as more covert efforts to promote dialogue and transition elsewhere in the region was one of the most interesting aspects of the Arab Spring. This paper examines the diffusion of global norms surrounding humanitarianism into the region and their expression through these two international organisations. It explores whether it was an alignment of wider geo-political interests which drove this dramatic change of approach by these organisations, with the norms simply providing convenient cover, or whether global norms have had a lasting impact on perceptions of legitimacy, humanitarianism and the importance of sovereignty. At the same time, it also examines the extent to which global norms have been mediated through local culture and been given a distinctive Middle Eastern flavour, and asks what role, if any, these organisations played in this process. Through the use of discourse analysis of statements issued by these bodies, opinion poll responses and social media trends the paper correlates the penetration of the language of humanitarianism during this febrile period and how this was reflected by the organisations themselves not as mere tools of the states alone but as regional actors which are capable of reflecting broader opinions beyond the governments of the member states, especially in the case of the Arab League. The paper contends that while these norms and institutions were undoubtedly co-opted by the member states there is significant evidence that the important legitimating effect of the League and GCC came independently of the states use of them, indicating contrary to existing literature on this topic (Columbo, 2017; Wajner & Kacowicz 2018; Sever 2019) these organisations can be seen to be sites of reaction norms, borrowing from biology and adding a new tool to the conceptualisation of norm cascades (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998). Despite the contention in the literature that these bodies have failed (e.g. Barnett & Solingen 2007) the paper contents that these IOs still remain important nodes in wider processes of regionalisation which is slowly reshaping the Middle East.
  • The ongoing armed conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen –erupted in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings – have created a complex environment where regional and international actors are present. In the case of the Libyan conflict, the focus of this paper, a number of regional organizations including the League of Arab States, the African Union, NATO at the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the EU and the UNSC in addition to state actors have been involved in mediation and attempts of conflict resolution. The presence of various actors has created what is referred to in the literature as a regime complex or institutional overlap (Alter & Raustiala, 2018; Hofmann 2009, 2011, & 2018). Such overlap between regional organizations, at least theoretically, puts pressure on the overlapping institutions to maintain their legitimacy as a relevant forum. Contrary to the common view in the literature that the Arab League is a dead organization, the League has managed to survive such complexity and stay a key regional actor in the dispute settlement and mediation efforts of the Libyan conflict. This paper addresses the following questions: Why is the League still a relevant actor despite the presence of other regional forums such as the African Union that could play a more active role given its mandate and dispute settlement mechanisms? And how did the League manage to survive such overlap and stay relevant? Through the use of discourse analysis of the statements and resolutions issued by the League on the Libyan conflict and expert interviews, the paper presents an analysis of the role played by the Arab League in attempting to resolve or mediate the Libyan conflict. The argument of the paper is that in such a complex environment the League has managed to remain relevant by leveraging its competitive advantages such as the identity of the organization, and the Secretary-General’s diplomacy to survive the crowdedness of actors involved. The paper assesses the role of the Arab League as a mediator in a contemporary conflict where its role is hardly analyzed. It also contributes to our understanding of inter-organizational relations and dynamics in a region that has a highly complex security environment because of the involvement of various regional and international actors. Finally, the paper contributes to the literature of inter-organizational relations and institutional overlap by presenting an empirical case study of an organization and a region, which are not commonly studied.
  • For the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, teaching and learning are part of the same process of knowing. Anchored on this premise, this paper seeks to answer two interrelated questions: How do we come to know the International Relations (IR) of the Arab world? How much knowledge about the Arab League should one have to be able to understand the IR of the Arab World? Theoretically and methodologically informed by Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education and by IR scholarship concerned with worlding beyond the West and regional worlds, this study addresses these issues making use of the following qualitative methods: discourse analysis of syllabi of IR of the Middle East and related courses; active participant observation in the classroom and semi-structured interviews with graduate students enrolled in the IR of the Arab world course at a federal university in Brazil during the 2019 and 2020 academic years; and dialogues (in Freirean terms) with Arab scholars, intellectuals, activists and diplomats. Amongst the conclusions reached by the study are the following: a) the advancement of knowledge on how states, institutions and social movements deemed to be “Arab” interact with each other, and with their non-Arab counterparts, both at the regional and global levels demands a course of its own at the postgraduate level instead of being subsumed under the wider umbrella of IR of the Middle East; b) in such a focused postgraduate course, studying the Arab League’s history, institutional practices and processes, engagements with other regional organizations and bilateral agreements is necessary, but not central; c) knowing the International Relations of the Arab world is only possible through the permanent dialogue between the teacher, the students, and the Arab peoples as subjects and not only objects of study; d) a postgraduate course on the International Relations of the Arab world should comprise a discussion on the role of regions in world politics and how the Arab world constitutes one of these regions, a critical assessment of the meanings historically and currently attached to the signifier “Arab” and its political implications, the characteristics of Arab political economy, the historical and political evolution of the LAS, Arab migrations and diasporas, the role the Arab media plays in regional and global politics, how Arab cinema and literature propagates a sense of Arab (plural) identity, and the Arab knowledge production in IR.