North Africa, West Asia

Arab League's absence reveals the reality of governance in the Arab world

Discrepancies in the Arab League expose the long-standing conservative, tribal, nepotistic and ineffective governance of the Arab world. Will exposure result in urgently needed government reform? 

Namaa Al-Mahdi
10 November 2014
Protests in Cairo Egypt 2011

Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. Shutterstock/ Mohamed Elsayyed. Some Rights reserved.

The Arab world, a group of 23 nations, bound by the Arab League is facing its most challenging time in modern history.

The Islamic State, a group of desert pirates have taken over vast swathes of land in Iraq and Syria. They have sparked civil war in Libya and are causing turmoil in Algeria.

Political unrest is destabilising autocratic regimes in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Bahrain. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has taken many lives and has triggered international outrage.

The Arab world is spiralling out of control – the future looks bleak. The fundamental problem facing the Arab League nations is the lack of a state - a legitimate authority that has the ability to maintain peace and enforce the rule of law. 

The Arab League  - a sea of undemocratic regimes

The seemingly stable states in the region are plutocratic regimes, regimes founded upon tribal systems of leadership transformed into the current government. These plutocratic regimes rely on old and unproductive procedures and lack functioning governance. The Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia are examples of plutocratic regimes that will face serious political challenges once their supply of oil runs out. When the natural oil reserve ends, the need for actual governance will become apparent.

Tribalism is a system whereby a group/community relies on a tribal leader and an elder to provide financial, social and economic support - in exchange for absolute loyalty and obedience. The functioning of tribalism is analogous to the role of a father figure in a family. The majority of the Arab states are governed by tribalism.

Oil revenues allow the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia to provide guardianship, public services and citizen support. However, these citizen support systems are very expensive and unsustainable.

Other Arab nations are kleptrocratic regimes, which rule through a system of secret police, oppression and brutality. These nations are governed similarly to the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia but with fewer and more limited resources. Guardianship and protection is only extended to the few loyalists of the president and king.

Root causes of Arab League ineffectiveness

In a crisis, the Arab League is expected to intervene. The League acts as an umbrella, for monitoring, guiding and informing policy and promoting action between members of the Arab States.

The African Union (AU) supports the League in Africa. The AU has been directly involved in conflicts and peacekeeping initiatives throughout the continent, for instance Sudan. In Asia, there is no regional safety equivalent, no umbrella of nations or organisations that can provide guidance, support and protection. The only Asian presence is the all-encompassing United Nations (UN).

The role of the Arab League has never been more vital, yet it remains absent.

In 2003 the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) hosted an Arab summit in cooperation with the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRS) and the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights (EIPR) to address the weaknesses of the Arab League.

The main criticism was direted at the lack of ability on the part of the <!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--> Arab League and supporting organisations to follow a systematic procedure, and the inability to effectively intervene in the time of need. The summit highlighted the lack of clear and concise plans of action.

The only plausible solution is reform of Arab state governments. However, government reform in these countries would be a lengthy and complicated process because government opposition, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the press lack political will and information. The civil society of the Arab world is often naïve about the defects of the state and fails to see the need to reform.

One of the popular Syrian revolution chants was “the people want to overthrow the government and the opposition”, the tribal mentality reflected in this and similar chants is the basis of political parties in the Arab world. This tribal mentality is manipulated by political parties and constitutes a fundamental part of the underlying agenda of plutocratic regimes. 

Societies fuelled by nepotism and pay-offs

Take the case of the Sudan. Since 2003, the UN and other international NGOs have provided a steady stream of training programmes in Sudan. These programmes aimed to address the capacity deficit facing the country, which eventually resulted in a twenty-two year civil war. Evaluations of these training programmes mainly reflected dissatisfaction with the food, praise for food provided at workshops - mostly overseas, and complaints about training that involved some level of costly travel.

Training opportunities are predominantly perceived as an opportunity for extra income. They are frequently used by autocratic regimes as a reward for loyalty. Large per-diems are provided as well as other benefits. In the Sudan, career and in-house training is generally an opportunity for a free meal. The meal rather than the training becomes the focus. Any small-scale government-training workshop would include a full three-course breakfast, three-course lunch, three-course dinner with additional snacks and beverages distributed in between the meals.

Job recruitment processes are not transparent. Job positions are often filled by friends, relatives or through a contact. Nepotism is not just a regrettable frequent occurrence: many consider it a duty. Anyone who seeks employment in companies or firms without help of friends or relatives is considered mean and disloyal.

Career progress is subjective and does not follow job performance evaluation. Instead of strengthening personal and professional skills, energy is dedicated to creating interpersonal relationships with managers, directors and any other important superior. This inter-company relationship not employee skills will determine the next promotion, upgrade or salary rise. 

Nepotism is an integral part of the tribal culture of the region - this is a catch-22 situation. The pillars of this culture, such as guardianship and nepotism cannot be discarded unless there is a functioning nation state to ensure the safety and protection of citizens. Failed public institutions built around tribalism and nepotism cannot create a viable nation state.

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