Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the colourful emir of Qatar, is normally not self-effacing. But over the weekend he took the podium at the Arab League summit in Libya and with gentle, calculated remarks, declared that his year-long tenure as League president had been a failure. "I have no achievements to boast of in the past one year as head of the Arab Summit - because no achievement has been realised," the Qatari leader said. Without reform of the League, he continued, the hope of joint action to address the challenges facing the Arab world was an illusion. "We cannot deceive ourselves and our people," said the emir, warning against further delay.
Criticism of the League by one of its principals, though rare, is not unprecedented. At the 2001 GCC summit in Muscat, then-Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, now Saudi Arabia's king, lambasted it for "wasting more than enough time condemning atrocities committed against us". It was time, he said, to focus on "self-criticism" and on "putting the Arab and Muslim house in order". For Arab states, the moment to heed these calls for more unity could not happen soon enough. Like a gathering storm, talk of war shadows the Middle East: with Iran over its nuclear programme; between Israel and Lebanon; between Israel, Syria and Hizbollah; between Israel and Hamas; and between Israel and the Palestinians.
With a sense of urgency suitable for the times, Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary general, addressed two of these seething problems at the Libya summit. By urging Arab leaders to prepare for the total collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mr Moussa revived a focus on the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia eight years ago at an Arab summit in Beirut. He also said the Arab League should open a dialogue with Iran to discuss the concerns of its neighbours with its nuclear programme.
Both suggestions reflect the underlying truths that Arab states prefer to run their own affairs and that they are haltingly but inexorably taking regional matters into their own hands. Bringing some order to the "Arab and Muslim house" - as King Abdullah and the emir of Qatar urge - must occur along with it.