Small achievable steps, especially in economics, arts and culture, can bring Arabs closer. Politics always divided us, so did the Arab League. Image Credit: GUILLERMO MUNRO, Gulf News

In a kind of funny survey of university students published a few years ago in Bahrain, only 17 per cent of them were able to give correct answers to questions on the Arab League, the trans-national body that supposedly binds the nearly 360 million Arabs.

One answer was so droll it actually hurt. It said Arab summits are being held in Tehran.

That survey, conducted by the Arabic daily Akhbar Al Khaleej, and many others, show that few Arabs know anything about the 65-year-old organisation and fewer actually care. The reason is obvious: it is irrelevant. In all its history, it has failed to offer any solution to the countless regional challenges and conflicts. Many Arabs today look at the European Union and say "why cannot we have something like that?"

It is quite unfair to compare the EU and the Arab League. The EU is a fully developed body of mostly developed countries. The AL meanwhile is a dysfunctional body of mostly developing countries, some of which have actually been designated as "failed states".

Surprisingly though, the AL was formed well before the EU, on March 22, 1945. In that year, European states were only able to form a small agency to deal with coal and steel productions. In a speech at Zurich University, British wartime leader Winston Churchill called for a "kind of United States of Europe". The Council of Europe was established in 1949.

By 1990, the body that started with the European Steel and Coal Community grew into a powerful union, able to absorb many newly emerging states in central Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1990, the AL was on the verge of collapse when Saddam Hussain ordered his army to invade Kuwait. At least seven Arab states lent tacit support to Saddam and were able to stall any decision by the AL for one week. Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2 and Arab leaders didn't even meet until the 9th. The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session well before that, on the 3rd.

As the leaders finally sat down in Cairo to discuss the crisis, in which an independent Arab state and a member of the league had just vanished, it was obvious a clear-cut resolution that would naturally condemn the invasion and call for restoring Kuwaiti sovereignty was not possible. A resolution, prepared by Egypt and Gulf states, was opposed by some countries, such as Jordan, Yemen, Sudan and Libya.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi said the AL charter requires consensus, knowing fully well that such consensus was impossible. Fed up with the apparent stalling by his fellow presidents, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who chaired the meeting, put the document to vote and it barely passed. Out of the 22 states attending, Kuwait and Iraq didn't vote and 11 states supported the resolution. Gaddafi protested the vote and stormed out.

Gaddafi opposed the motion for all the wrong reasons. As a longtime advocate of ‘Arab unity', he perhaps saw Saddam's move to annex Kuwait as a form of unification (albeit by force). But technically, he was right.

According to Article 6 of the AL charter, "in case of aggression or threat of aggression by a State against a member State; the State attacked or threatened with attack may request an immediate meeting of the Council. The Council shall determine the necessary measures to repel this aggression. Its decision shall be taken unanimously."

The Libyan leader, along with few other presidents, said Egypt manipulated the AL and ignored the charter. But the entire organisation failed to stand up to the invasion. It was the international community which mobilised regional resources and armies to bring Kuwait back from the dead.

Thirteen years later, it was Iraq's turn to taste the incompetence of the AL as the leaders wrangled over the imminent US attack on the Arab country. Like in the 1990 crisis, the US had the last word. Again, the AL proved irrelevant as America invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. An Emirati initiative, which could have averted the war according to some historians, was intentionally ignored by the Secretary-General Amr Mousa.

In 2006 and 2009, as Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon and Gaza respectively, few in the Arab world looked at the AL for action. The majority realises the organisation has been on death bed for so long and awaits the inevitable decision to pull the plug.

Last month, tough-talking but no-action Mousa may have unknowingly started the countdown to dismantling the dysfunctional AL.

At an emergency summit in Sirte, Libya, a number of Arab states including heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia objected to a proposal by the host, Colonel Gaddafi, to drastically alter the AL charter "to pave the way for full unification". The proposal was dismissed and the meeting moved on to other (unimportant) business. But few days later it was announced that Mousa was holding meetings with few Arab ministers, whose countries had supported the Libyan proposal, on how to implement the plan despite the fact it had already been dismissed.

Understandably, Egypt and the Gulf states were furious. An Arab official said it was "a childish move". Others called for investigation and indirectly censured Mousa.

Meanwhile and whilst Mousa is busy answering angry calls, Israel has restarted the colony construction and frozen peace talks, Lebanon is (again) on the verge of another conflict, Yemen has become a stronghold for Al Qaida and of course Sudan is steadily heading towards disintegration. The AL is oblivious as ever.

If there is any lesson to be learnt from the AL's experience in the past 65 years it is that it is high time we pulled the plug on it and sent Mousa and his lieutenants home. The Arabs need, and deserve, an effective body with realistic and practical objectives that could be achieved and pave the way for real integration, similar to the European Steel and Coal Community.

Small achievable steps, especially in economics, arts and culture, can bring Arabs closer. Politics always divided us, so did the AL. We have had enough of both.