Winds of change blow, and the Arab League flaps about

A glance at the history of the Arab League reveals that the chapter on its successes is very short indeed.

The Arab League's latest sessions on Syria bring to mind the first Arab League summit I witnessed, in November 1973. Meeting in Algiers barely two months after a coup had overthrown the elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, league officials corralled the press corps in a football stadium, sparking comparisons with events in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, where General Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered Mr Allende's supporters.

Our torment took the form of lengthy and tedious speeches from the heads of state, who were feeling empowered by two events: Egypt and Syria has just held Israel to a draw in the Sinai and Golan Heights, and the Arab oil states had imposed an embargo on the countries that sustained Israel's occupation of the territories it occupied in 1967.

The Arab world's most impressive figure, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, was absent. His exhausting effort to salvage Arab unity undoubtedly caused the heart attack that killed him, dooming Arab nationalism.

In President Nasser's place in Algiers was Anwar Sadat, hero of the "assault on the Suez Canal" of October 6, 1973. (A few years later, the league would expel Sadat's Egypt for its unilateral peace with Israel.) The most impressive figure in Algiers was Saudi Arabia's King Faisal, a courtly and dignified figure who held real power in the form of oil as a political weapon. The jester was Libya's Captain (self-promoted to colonel after his September 1969 coup), Muammar Qaddafi.

The Arab League, which came into being because the British needed an Arab wartime alliance against Germany, never amounted to much. Originally proclaiming Arab unity and an end to colonial borders, it descended into guarantor of the post-colonial status quo.

One major decision, to attack Israel after Israelis declared statehood in May 1948, was a disaster for the Palestinians and the Arab states that took part. Israel under the cover of war expelled three quarters of Palestinians, and the Arab regimes that had urged war - Syria, Egypt and Iraq - were overthrown, while leaders of the other Arab participants in that futile jihad - Lebanon's Riad Al Solh and Jordan's King Abdullah - fell to assassins.

In 1973 the Arab leaders recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation as its people's legitimate representative, much to the annoyance of the Jordanian delegation that still claimed the West Bank for the kingdom. (A year later, in Rabat, they updated that recognition to "sole" legitimate representative.) More importantly, the league decided in a secret accord "to sever all the diplomatic, consular, economic, cultural and other relations with South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia of those Arab States which have not yet done so… [and] completely to ban Arab oil exports to those three states." Portugal had permitted the US to use its bases to supply Israel during the October War, and South Africa was an important Israeli ally.

Outside the conference hall in Algiers, representatives of liberation movements from Portuguese Africa, Rhodesia and South Africa told me why they had urged an embargo on the League. They were certain that an oil boycott would force the Portuguese to decolonise in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. That, in turn, would push Ian Smith's Rhodesia and South Africa towards majority rule. It was a peripheral issue to the Arabs, but their decision had historic consequences.

Five months after the Arabs cut off Portugal's oil, the Salazar-Caetano regime, in power since 1933, fell to junior army officers in the bloodless Carnation Revolution. The revolutionary regime withdrew from Africa. Unfortunately, Portugal left its former empire there in chaos. Liberation came with civil war and intervention by South Africa and Cuba. As the boundaries of white-ruled Africa moved south to encompass only Rhodesia and South Africa, it became a matter of how and when the final turnover would take place.

Subsequent Arab League actions were less effective. In 1976 the league intervened in Lebanon by despatching something called the Arab Deterrent Force to Beirut to restore order. Although Saudis and other Arabs served in the force, it was nothing more than a masque for the Syrian occupation that ended only in 2005. Syrian dominance of Lebanon prolonged the war, while preventing the leftist-Palestinian-Muslim alliance from reforming the Lebanese system.

In 2002, the League offered Israel full recognition in exchange for withdrawing from occupied territories as required under UN Resolution 242. Israel ignored the overture, while the league and its members did nothing about it.

Which brings us to today. Change is hitting the Arab world just as Harold Macmillan's "winds" blew over Africa in the 1960s. The Arab League, however, cannot manage change that it does not want.

Most recently, the league sacrificed Qaddafi to Nato, having demonstrated only impotence in Tunisia and Egypt. But even in Libya, Arab leaders simply turned the problem over to the United Nations, which contracted the job to Nato.

The league's most recent meetings to solve the Syrian problem are not promising either. The Arab League is demanding that Bashar Al Assad's regime cease its violence and enter into discussions with the opposition that the opposition itself rejects.

Will the League enforce its diktats in Syria? Is anyone asking whether depriving Iran of its only Arab ally is the first step towards an American or Israeli assault on Tehran? Does President Al Assad, when he looks at the Arab heads of state condemning him, wonder what makes their regimes so different from his?

Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags, The Tribes Triumphant and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books