What Is the Arab League?

The Arab League, officially the League of Arab States, is a union of Arabic-speaking African and Asian countries. It was formed in Cairo in 1945 to promote the independence, sovereignty, affairs, and interests of its member countries (originally, there were six) and observers.

The 22 members of the Arab League as of 2021 are Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The five observers are Brazil, Eritrea, India, and Venezuela.

Key Takeaways

  • The Arab League is a regional multi-national organization of Arabic-speaking countries on the African and Asian continents.
  • The Arab league's mission is to promote trade and economic growth as well as sovereignty and political stability in the region.
  • As of 2021, the League consisted of 22 member nations and 5 observer nations.

Understanding the Arab League

The Arab League countries have widely varying levels of population, wealth, gross domestic product (GDP), and literacy. They are all predominantly Muslim, Arabic-speaking countries, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia are considered the dominant players in the League. Through agreements for joint defense, economic cooperation, and free trade, among others, the league helps its member countries to coordinate government and cultural programs to facilitate cooperation and limit conflict.

In 1945, when the League was formed, the prominent issues were freeing the Arab countries that were still under colonial rule and preventing the breakup of Palestine via the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. (The League recognizes Palestine as a separate nation today.)

The Arab League Council

The League Council is the highest body of the Arab League and is composed of representatives of member states, typically foreign ministers, their representatives, or permanent delegates. Each member state has one vote.

The Council meets twice a year, in March and September. Two members or more can request a special session if they desire.

The general secretariat manages the daily operations of the league and is headed by the secretary-general. The general secretariat is the administrative body of the league, the executive body of the council, and the specialized ministerial councils.

Arab League Member Conflicts

The Arab League's effectiveness and influence have been hampered by divisions among member states. During the Cold War, some members were supportive of the Soviet Union while others aligned with Western nations. There has also been rivalry over League leadership—especially between Egypt and Iraq.

Hostilities between monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco have been disruptive, as have the conduct of states that have undergone political change such as Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.

The United States' attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq also created significant rifts between members of the Arab League.

Resolutions by the Council don't have to be unanimously approved by members. However, because they are binding only on the nations that voted for them—no country has to abide by them against its will—their effectiveness is somewhat limited, often amounting to little more than declarations rather than implemented policies.

One of the Arab League's longest-lasting and unanimous actions: Its members' economic boycott of Israel between 1948 and 1993.

The Arab League and the Arab Spring

The Arab League did act decisively and unanimously during the "Arab Spring" uprisings in early 2011. It supported the United Nations' action against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya. It also suspended Syria from participation in the Council.

Recent Developments

Although the Arab League condemned the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, and several of its members launched airstrikes against the militant organization, as a whole it did little to assist the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

The League has denounced Turkey's invasions of Syria, calling on it to withdraw in 2018 and 2019.

The League's position on Israel has been inconsistent. In 2019, it denounced Israel's plans to annex the Jordan Valley. In February 2020, the League denounced the Middle East peace plan put forth by U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration, saying it “does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people." But several members seemed to approve, and later, in September, it didn't condemn the United Arab Emirates' decision to normalize ties with the Jewish state.

In April 2021, the League called on Somalia to hold postponed presidential and parliamentary elections.

Arab League FAQs

What Is the Purpose of the Arab League?

The Arab League's state purpose is to seek close cooperation among its members on matters of common interest—specifically, economics, communication, culture, nationality, social welfare, and health; to strengthen ties, improve communication, and promote common interest among Arabic-speaking nations.

The Pact of the League of Arab States, the organization's founding document, identifies the mission of the League as follows:

“The purpose of the League is to draw closer the relations between member States and coordinate their political activities with the aim of realizing a close collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries."

Who Is the Leader of the Arab League?

The Arab League is headed by the Secretary-General. As of 2021, Ahmed Aboul Gheit holds that post. He assumed it in 2016.

Does the Arab League Still Exist?

Yes, the Arab League still exists. But members are skipping League summits and declining positions, possibly a sign of waning enthusiasm for the organization.

Some scholars and statesmen feel that the League is unable to overcome a fundamental paralysis, due to internal divisions among its member nations, leading to "resolutions [that] are prefabricated, out of date, out of touch, and reflexively anti-Israeli," as states a 2020 article posted by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. The conclusion of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies is that "the time has come to close it down."

"The League’s paralysis reflects its irrelevance since the 2000s," Sean Yom, associate professor at Temple University, Philadelphia, and author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East, said in a 2018 interview. "If we are going to see the League simply dissolve away, it will probably take another decade or two."

Why Is Turkey Not in the Arab League?

Turkey has expressed interest in having an observer status in the League but has been refused for several reasons, most noticeably opposition from Iraq (whose Kurdish citizens Turkey has frequently battled with) and Syria (the latter still claims Turkey's Hatay Province). The League has also condemned Turkey's military interventions in Libya and other countries.

Is the Arab League a Military Alliance?

The Arab League as an organization is not a military alliance per se, though from its 1945 founding its members agreed to cooperate in military affairs and coordinate military defense. At the 2007 summit, the Leaders decided to reactivate their joint defense and establish a peacekeeping force to deploy in South Lebanon, Darfur, Iraq, and other hot spots.

At a 2015 summit in Egypt, member states agreed in principle to form a joint voluntary military force.