Last week, in Jordan, heads of states and representatives of the Arab League met for their 28th ordinary summit. Deeply divided on the future of Syria, relationships with Iran and the United States, and embroiled in bloody conflicts, the members of the body are hardly meeting the League’s foundational mission to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.”
In an act of unintentional self-parody, the League’s inefficacy was blatantly exposed by images of rulers sleeping during the recent session. Amongst those napping was Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, whose country, lest we forget, is entering its fiftieth year of occupation. Also conked out was exiled Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Last week, his citizens came out in the hundreds of thousands to protest the second anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on the poor Gulf country. Hadi seems unconcerned that the war, which was ostensibly launched to restore his government, has killed thousands and brought millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
A few years ago we were talking about the Arab Awakening, which is traditionally followed by the Arab Siesta. pic.twitter.com/09cf4m4R4m
— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) March 30, 2017
While these leaders were justifiably mocked for their sleepy transgressions, this ridicule does not seem like enough, given the current state of the Arab world. The most recent Arab Human Development Report highlighted that the Arab world is home to 58% of refugees and 68% of battle-related deaths, even though it hosts only 5% of the global population. In addition to Palestine’s occupation and Yemen’s civil war, Iraq, Syria, and Libya remain embroiled in armed conflicts that seem no where near ending. Given these challenges, a sense of urgency, or at the very least undivided attention, should be expected from Arab leaders.
But perhaps we can forgive Abbas and Hadi their naps. They are, after all, eighty-two and seventy-one respectively. The eighty-seven-year-old Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was also caught dozing on camera. A day before, the eighty-two-year-old Lebanese President Michel Aoun took an unfortunate tumble before a photo-op at the summit. Seventy-one-year-old Saudi King Salman was in attendance, but the eighty-year-old president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, did not make it and was represented instead by the speaker of the Algerian parliament.
This abundance of geriatric politicians is endemic across the Arab world. The same Arab Human Development Report, which focused on the region’s youth bulge, noted that the average age of state ministers is fifty-eight years. According to the report, Arab countries generally politically and economically exclude young people, especially young women. Outlets for youth political participation are particularly limited, despite rising political interest amongst the population. As demonstrated by the Arab Spring, political activity among youth has largely taken place outside formal political channels, meaning more protests than participation in elections.
It is this political order itself, which was so thoroughly rejected by the 2011 uprisings, that caused the Arab Spring crises in the first place. As Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri, professor of contemporary Middle East history at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera, “the current [Arab] political order is not capable of providing solutions – everyone is looking out for their own interest, which is to survive.”
While leaders nap on the job, frustration is growing in the Arab world, especially amongst young people. With the circumstances that led to the Arab Spring still unresolved, these leaders should not rest so comfortably.