x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

An opportunity for principled Arab leadership

Arab nations, through the Arab League and the GCC, have shown political unity in response to the unrest sweeping the region. However, consistency and strength of conviction is needed to ensure political reform is afforded to all Arab citizens.

As Col Muammar Qaddafi's troops bore down on Benghazi in mid-March, it seemed that the fate of Libya's battered rebel forces was sealed. In large part, it was the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone that mobilised international support and prevented a massacre. On March 17, the UN Security Council responded and the fall of Benghazi was averted.

It was a strong stance for the Arab League, which is blamed for waffling more often than credited for decisive action. The unity shown by Arab countries spoke of a renewed political purpose, a response to the momentous events witnessed on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, and to some extent almost every other Arab capital since.

It is easy to argue that Libya is a special case. It is undoubtedly easier to reach a consensus about events there than about the ongoing crisis in Syria, for example. But there are unmistakable signs of a more robust Arab foreign policy and hints at least of a shared common ground.

A principled foreign policy by no means has to have military overtones. In Yemen, a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative may have lain the groundwork for an orderly transition of power, although President Ali Abdullah Saleh still has the chance to play the spoiler.

Arab citizens appear to be of one opinion: less foreign intervention, more solutions delivered by Arabs for Arabs. As The National reported yesterday, a poll by Al Aan television's Nabd al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) programme found that almost 55 per cent of respondents said the GCC should lead the way in ending the unrest in Yemen, while only 7 per cent wanted any US involvement. It is a voice that the United States, as well as the region, should listen to.

Intervention in a sovereign country's affairs should be a carefully considered proposition. Even in Libya, Nato's continued military action is being questioned, with the Arab League voicing concerns over France's aggressive bombing campaign. It will always be a matter of debate, but a regional response should be able to reach a better balance - and be better received.

"Arab countries are stepping up more and it's a historic development that reflects a new dynamism," said Dr Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at American University in Beirut. "The GCC seems more willing to act, and I think it's welcomed."

A new-found maturity among the Arab nations will be welcome, however, only if it is backed by transparency and consistency of action. So far, the Arab League has barely commented on the situation in Syria.

Across the Arab world, the calls for reforms cannot be ignored any more. The strength of conviction shown by citizens across the region should open a new chapter of cooperation.