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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 15:22 | SYDNEY

The brief bloom of Arab multilateralism

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4 April 2012 12:02

If anyone thought the Arab League had finally been able to 'get it together' and become an effective multilateral body, as some posited following its endorsement of military action against Libya and its imposition of sanctions against Syria, they should think again. 

The Arab League's limitations were on display again in the recent Baghdad summit. While the Arab League has always been more about talking than action, the symbolism surrounding the first Arab League meeting in Iraq since 1990 seemed to offer the possibility that such symbolism was being used to encourage a rapprochement between the largely Sunni Arab League and Shi'a-led Iraq. 

There were encouraging signs that people were prepared to play nicely, with the (non-resident) Saudi ambassador to Iraq presenting his credentials to President Talabani in the days leading up to the summit. Another highly symbolic act was the attendance of the Emir of Kuwait, showing that one Gulf state at least is heavily into political pragmatism.

His attendance however, could not disguise the fact that he was the only GCC head of state present, highlighting that, while the Arab states were willing to send positive signals to Iraq, Baghdad is yet to be fully embraced. Sticking points include some Gulf states' refusal to have close relations with a Shi'a-led Arab state, Iraq's relationship with its Shi'a neighbour Iran, and Baghdad's continuing support for the Syrian regime. In fact, the lights on the conference hall had barely been turned out before the painted-on smiles were replaced with snarls over these issues. 

Qatar has infuriated Baghdad by laying on the red carpet (literally) for Iraq's fugitive Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, who's accused of running anti-Shi'a death squads. He was flown to Doha on a Qatar Airways jet from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan despite there being an arrest warrant outstanding for him. Qatar has refused to hand him over to the Iraqi Government, saying that he retains diplomatic immunity due to his unrevoked status as vice-president.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has not taken kindly to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's criticism of Saudi/Qatari plans to arm Syrian opposition forces and to interfere in Syria. Riyadh launched a media tirade against the Iraqi leader, much being made of his relationship with Iran. 

And so the sectarian, personal, ideological and political differences that have always made the Arab League more of a talkfest than an effective forum continues, as the Arab states search (or don't) for an Arab unity that appears to exist for only fleeting moments.

Photo by Flickr user 27147.

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