Just as the world is becoming more interconnected every year, the formal institutions of global governance are failing. We know more about our seven billion fellow human beings through our screens than any other generation in history did, but the dominant global body of the United Nations has become vacuous. Nothing should be more urgent than saving the entire world from overheating, but the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has drifted into irrelevance as its Kyoto Round became the Doha Round.

The same regional disinterest applies to the Arab world where the Arab League has lost its purpose, even if it once had a political direction when it coordinated the Arab world into joint resistance to Israel. But after the Egyptians signed their treaty with Israel and the Palestinians reached their uncomfortable accommodation with Israel through the Oslo Accords, the Arab League settled for doing good work like shaping school curricula, advancing the role of women, promoting child welfare and preserving Arab culture and heritage.

Even the once-powerful Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) has faded after its glory days of the 1973 oil embargo when many Arab states got to know how they could leverage their oil production for political gains. But after this example of joint action, they lost their sense of unified direction and instead many OAPEC members then used their new-found political power to renegotiate the contracts with the oil companies active in their territories

An interesting article on global governance by Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs looks at how today’s anarchy of sovereign nations is working well despite the muddle in formal multilateral institutions. He points out that despite Barack Obama’s ambitions to bring in rising powers as full partners, there has been no movement to reform the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organisation is comatose, Nato is struggling to find a strategic purpose and the International Energy Agency courts obsolescence by omitting China and India as members.

But Patrick points out that the inherent anarchy of having global governance composed of sovereign states that recognise no higher authority does not necessarily lead to chaos. He notices that cooperation is working well through various regional institutions, bilateral and multilateral alliances and security groups, ad hoc coalitions, issue-specific arrangements, transnational professional networks and technical standard-setting bodies. The sovereign states are still the dominant actors, says Patrick, but non-state actors increasingly help shape the global agenda, define new rules and monitor compliance.

In the Arab world, there are many such special interest groups which focus on their own particular purpose without the over-arching political or economic direction that the Arab League was supposed to provide. The Arab response to the invasion of Kuwait, the revolution in Libya and the on-going disintegration of Syria are clear cases of ad hoc groups taking their own steps.

Growing unrest

The six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have a useful forum in which they meet regularly, but there is strong resistance to turning the GCC into any kind of supra-national body with constitutional authority, like the Europeans are doing with European Union. So, when Bahrain needed help from its GCC allies in coping with growing unrest during 2011 and 2012, the GCC did not send the combined GCC armed forces through the Peninsula Shield. Instead, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sent troops as individual states and supported their ally as nations rather than as a regional body.

Another example is how Egypt and Sudan are members of the Nile Basic Initiative with seven other states that border the Nile River, so that they can all sort out their water use issues in a focused context with no reference to the Arab League or other regional governance bodies, like the 54-member African Union. A host of pan-Arab bodies are working across a myriad of technical areas, developing standards for professional groups like doctors, accountants, construction industry and education and a lot of this work started under the aegis of the Arab League. But they do not provide any sense of grand political direction.

A good example of how the Arab world is part of the wider system of ad hoc global governance is how Saudi Arabia was a willing member of the G20 when it was formed by the dominant economic nations of the G8 to include the major emerging nations. At the time, the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 needed a global response and the formation of G20 was the answer without any involvement of the global bodies like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. After recession was averted, the G20 has reverted to its previous somnolence and the emerging countries are left wondering if they have a permanent role in global financial governance.