Khalid Al-Jaber / Al-Jazeera & Marwan Kabalan / Al-Jazeera – 2018-10-15 18:04:04
Are Trump’s Plans for an Arab NATO Realistic?
If the Trump administration has failed to resolve the GCC rift,
how can it have the GCC form a military alliance?
Khalid Al-Jaber / Al-Jazeera
(October 11, 2018) — The Trump administration is continuing to push forward with plans to establish a so-called “Arab NATO”. The military alliance is supposed to include the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — in addition to Egypt and Jordan.
Officially referred to by the Trump administration as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), the new eight-member “Arab NATO” is meant to “serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism” while bringing “stability to the Middle East.”
Late last month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his counterparts from these eight Arab states to discuss making such a vision a reality. Yet, US officials have yet to provide a timeframe for the formation of such an alliance. According to US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking, the alliance’s launch will happen at a summit in the US scheduled for early 2019.
However, key questions about this idea remain unanswered, prompting scepticism about MESA’s prospects for success. Do these Arab states have the military capabilities to make this alliance a realistic source of security and a bulwark against Iran’s expanding and consolidating influence?
Could they ever set aside political and ideological differences to unite and cooperate in such a capacity? How would NATO, including Turkey, cooperate with such a transnational Arab institution? Unquestionably, such questions will be addressed at the upcoming US-GCC Camp David Summit.
It is important to note that Washington’s interest in establishing such an Arab security alliance is not new and precedes the Trump administration. When Barack Obama was president, the White House discussed this idea with US allies in the Arab world, both in the form of a Saudi-led “Islamic Force” and an Egypt-led “Arab Force.”
Both Trump and Obama saw such an Arab alliance as advancing US interests by reducing the heavy burdens of responsibility placed on Washington’s shoulders when it comes to security in the Arab world.
However, the “Arab NATO” idea has received far more support from the Trump administration than it did from the Obama White House given the current US president’s extremely anti-Iranian foreign policy.
As analysts Andrew Miller and Richard Sokolsky have pointed out to President Trump, “who seems to crave a confrontation with Iran but does not necessarily want to commit US troops to such an endeavour, the prospect of an Arab alliance willing to take the initiative is something to be encouraged and abetted.”
In all probability, MESA will not come to fruition despite the extent to which the US administration supports the creation of this anti-Iranian alliance of Arab states. The blockade on Qatar, Oman and Kuwait’s unease with Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and lingering tensions between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the Syrian crisis among other issues will continue to be major stumbling blocks.
To be sure, much of the tension between Arab capitals has to do with disputes over the question of who in the Sunni Muslim world qualifies as an extremist and questions about how or when the Arab states could or should engage with Tehran.
Among the eight states that are supposed to constitute MESA, half have allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to legitimately operate in their domestic and/or foreign politics (Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Qatar). Others (Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) have cracked down on the Islamist movement’s local branches, with Abu Dhabi leading the effort to make the Gulf Muslim Brotherhood-free.
Regarding Iranian ascendancy in the Arab world, certain members of the so-called “Arab NATO”, namely Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait — and to a lesser extent Egypt and Jordan — favor a more accommodating relationship with the Islamic Republic due to a host of national interests stemming from internal sectarian dynamics, energy needs, security dilemmas, trade, and investment.
Yet, Abu Dhabi (but not so much Dubai), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia see a more confrontational approach towards Tehran as best serving their security interests at a time when the Iranian regime is flexing its muscles in the region.
Ultimately, at this juncture, plans for MESA are highly unrealistic, given the lack of military capabilities on the part of these Arab states, as evidenced by the disastrous campaign in Yemen, as well as the political and ideological frictions between the GCC’s six member-states, Egypt, and Jordan.
After all, if the Trump administration has failed to convince government officials in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Cairo to merely talk to their counterparts in Doha, it is unreasonable to expect that it would be able to bring them together in a military alliance capable of tipping the regional balance of power against Iran.
Dr. Khalid Al-Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Trump’s ‘Arab NATO’ Plan
To Counter Iran Is Doomed to Fail
What the region needs is not
an ‘Arab NATO’ but a Marshall Plan
(August 10, 2018) — With the stated aim of bringing it back to the table of negotiation in order to clinch a “better” deal than the one signed by its predecessor, the Trump administration reimposed the first round of economic sanctions on Iran. The second and more painful one, which targets Iran’s vital oil sector, will come into effect in early November. Iran’s economy is already feeling the heat. The currency is falling, European companies are leaving, and oil customers are looking for supplies elsewhere. But this is not the whole story.
President Trump knows that economic sanctions alone, especially in the absence of international consensus, would not produce the intended effects — to force Iran to negotiate and accept US terms. Sanctions, according to several studies, have only a 35 percent success rate when they are unaccompanied by other means of coercion. Hence, the idea of establishing a so-called “Arab NATO”.
The proposed security and political alliance tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) would bring together the six GCC countries, Egypt and Jordan to confront Iran. It might well be announced at a summit provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12.
Indeed, one is tempted to think that the main driver of the idea is President Donald Trump’s blatant desire to see friends and allies shoulder more of the financial burden in confronting regional security threats. Notwithstanding the importance of money for the calculus of the US president, there are much deeper implications of the proposed plan that will also affect the chances of its success.
In fact, what President Trump is primarily suggesting is a collective security formula composed of countries from the region to deal with threats emanating from within the region, be that by states like Iran, or by non-state actors, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other radical groups.
This is something unseen since the early years of the Cold War, when foreign powers had often tried to erect regional security alliances to confront threats, protect their interests and those of their regional allies. But these security systems have rarely worked.
Right after the end of World War II, both Britain and the US tried to establish regional security alliances with the aim of confronting the Soviet Union and containing communist penetration into the strategically important region of the Gulf and the Middle East.
The Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab struggle against European colonialism, made it difficult, however, to include Israel in any collective security arrangement for the Middle East. The US opted, as a result, towards establishing a “Northern Tier,” referring to the line of countries that formed a border between the Soviet Union and the Middle East.
According to the Archive of the US Department of State, “The idea was to conclude an alliance that would link the southernmost member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey, with the westernmost member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Pakistan”. Other attempts were made to establish a “Middle East Command”, a British idea, to encircle the Soviet Union. The plan was abandoned in favour of another scheme: “Middle East Defense Organization”.
Later efforts resulted in the establishment of the “Baghdad Pact”, which included Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the UK. The US did not join the Pact, preferring instead to sign individual agreements with the member states.
All of these collective security alliances have failed, however, in achieving their primary objective: containing the Soviet Union and confronting communism. Despite all the efforts, Moscow succeeded in penetrating the region and establishing close ties with Syria and Egypt. To add insult to injury, a key member in the Baghdad Pact (Iraq) became Moscow’s closest regional ally after the 1958 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy.
The key reason for the failure of all these security arrangements was an intrinsic lack of understanding by the architect, the US in this case, and its inability to appreciate the centrality of the Palestinian cause in the collective awareness of the Arab people. For most Arabs, at that time, Israel was far more imminent threat than the Soviet Union. Today, there are more reasons to expect the failure of the US-sponsored Arab NATO.
Needless to say that the founding pillar of any collective security organisation is that all of its members must share the same threat perception. Otherwise, it cannot be called collective security. This is lacking in the case of the Arab NATO on two levels: on the inter-state level and on the state-society level. For some member states, the threat comes from within the proposed security alliance as much as it comes from without.
In the light of the news that former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had intervened to stop Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from invading Qatar last year, one would wonder what type of security alliance Mr Trump is promoting here.
The underlying principle of collective security is “One for all and all for one”. Aggression or war against a member of a collective security system is a war against all members. But here war and the threat of war is originating from the very organisation that is supposed to provide protection and enhance one’s security!
On the state-society level, there is even a larger gap between the threat perceptions of the rulers and those of the ruled. Indeed, many Arabs see Iran as a grave threat, given its destabilising activities in the region and its interference in the internal affairs of the Arab world. Yet, a greater number of Arabs believe that Israel and the US present a far greater threat to Arab security than Iran.
According to the Arab index, Iran ranks first among the most threatening countries to Arab security only in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. For the rest of the Arab world, it lags far behind Israel and the US. In addition, a great number of Arabs believe that the most pressing problem for them is the lack of good governance and the absence of sound public policies to tackle poverty, unemployment, and social inequality.
Indeed, Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs must stop and its behaviour must change, but President Trump’s Arab NATO venture will not help achieve that. It will just be another failed attempt in a series of failures to bring security to a region that is still very much preoccupied with the balance of power concept and realpolitik approach.
President Trump will do us more favour if he helps both Arabs and Iranians rebuild their failed state institutions. A Marshall Plan for the Middle East is what we need to provide stability and security to all countries in the region.
Inclusive security arrangements will lead to prosperity and prosperity will help establish true democracy in Iran and the Arab world. A democratic peace could then prevail as it did in post-WWII Europe.
Marwan Kabalan is the Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera‘s editorial stance.
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