It is a dream long cherished by an exasperated outside world: the development of the Arab League from a rancorous talking shop into a meaningful force for regional stability. A possible step towards this goal was taken at the Arab League’s recent summit (pictured) in Egypt’s seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, where plans for a united Arab military were set out. But will it ever happen and would it actually work? After all, this idea has been doing the rounds since at least 1965 – and to little avail.
“There have been many dreams of Arab unity,” says Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. “But more often than not the Arab leaders preaching it were mostly interested in advancing their own influence over other countries.”
Various Arab militaries have acted in coalition recently – against Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, Isis-affiliated militias in Libya and the Houthi rebels in Yemen – but these have all been air campaigns of debatable effectiveness. “Egypt has the manpower and Saudi Arabia the airpower to become significant if they allied behind an assertive foreign policy,” says Kinninmont. “But they’re also [respectively] the centres of Arab nationalism and religious authority, so there is potential for tensions to re-emerge there.”
A further reason the grand idea has remained just that is that the 22 members of the Arab League are far more economically diverse than, say, Nato’s 28 states. They range from wealthy Gulf emirates to impoverished states such as Somalia, Mauritania and Sudan. Nato countries have also lost the habit of fighting each other.
For all these obstacles, an Arab military alliance led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia could be a formidable regional force. What remains to be seen is how far such a prospect would displease Iran – thereby potentially creating as many problems as it might solve.
The al-Shabaab attack on Kenya’s Garissa University left 148 dead and shone the spotlight back on Somalia. Horn of Africa expert Edward Paice analyses the implications for stability in the region.
How has the Garissa attack affected relations in the region?
Things have worsened, especially with the bomb attack on the Ministry of Education [on 14 April]. Kenya is shutting down Somali remittance firms and therefore increasing stigmatisation of Somalis. This is for domestic political gain and counterproductive.
How is the instability affecting Somalia?
It’s remarkable what Somalis are achieving despite insecurity; new businesses are springing up every day. If there was more stability the opportunities to thrive would be greater. The perception of insecurity is the biggest problem: it affects foreign investment.
What needs to be done?
The most urgent necessity is to ensure that remittances from all over the world to Somalia are not cut off. Stem the money flow and you can say goodbye to everything else.
To an almost perceptible sound of slow hand-clapping, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has declared its four-strong fleet of Victoria-class submarines “operational” – nearly 20 years after buying them. The four boats were purchased secondhand from the UK’s Royal Navy in 1998 for nearly CA$900m (€676m).
The RCN is said to have since spent half that figure again on maintenance, and “operational” is a relative term, meaning only that three of the subs are permitted into the water; one is equipped to actually fire torpedoes, two have restricted dive capability and one will likely be in dock until 2017.
According to one analyst, this is not quite the epic fiasco it appears. “These boats have been labelled as lemons,” says David Perry, senior analyst at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. “But our navy regards them as having pretty world-class capability.”
Every European member of Nato slashed its tank fleet dramatically after the Cold War ended but Germany has become the first to reverse the trend, returning more than 100 Leopard 2a4s to service. The German Ministry of Defence confirmed in April that it will increase its fleet from 225 to 328 vehicles, partly in response to the fighting in Ukraine.But here’s the rub: the army offloaded roughly 90 per cent of its 2,000-strong Leopard 2 fleet as a peace dividend and will now have to buy them back from the remaining stocks that have not been exported. Many were quickly snapped up in sales that propelled Germany to a record-high position as the third-largest arms exporter in 2010. And since the army is in the process of rolling out newly enhanced Leopard 2a7-standard tanks, the mothballed vehicles will also have to be upgraded to match the current fleet.