Mr. Bilal is an agronomist student at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He has been writing blogs on national and international politics and international relations since 2017.
“They say in the Middle East, a pessimist is simply an optimist with experience,” said Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel in 2012. According to even the most careful estimate, the Middle East has witnessed more than 30 major wars since the end of WW2. As per US President Jimmy Carter’s definition, a major war is one in which at least 1,000 people had been killed.
From the Arab-Israel Conflict of 1948 to the ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Syria, millions of souls have been erased from the plane of existence in the name of religion, nationalism, security, or even peacekeeping as Americans like to put it. Seven civil wars transpired just between 2016 and 2018, bringing us to the idea of a joint alliance like NATO, aimed at keeping conflicts behind closed doors, tackling the security threats from Iran, and focusing on shared goals of human and economic development.
America and an Arab NATO
The idea of an Arab military alliance like NATO or Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) in the language of the Department of Defense has been circulating for years, but it officially hit the news circles in February 2017. The Wall Street Journal, in said year, reported that the Trump administration was in talks with its Saudi counterparts about a potential military alliance comprising Israel and Arab states. The alliance would involve intelligence sharing to counter Iranian proxies and other terrorist threats in the region.
It again surfaced during Donald Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia in May of the same year. “We all have the same enemy and we all want the same thing. What this trip hopefully will do is just change the environment,” senior White House officials told Washington Post at the time. President Donald Trump had embarked on a very direct but flawed approach regarding Iran by exiting the landmark Iranian nuclear deal, putting sanctions back in place, and even ordering drone attacks on top Iranian military officials like General Qasem Soleimani.
President Joe Biden campaigned with the slogan of re-joining the nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which, for now, seems like a dead end with both sides blaming the other. Even if it becomes a reality, it cannot possibly address the proxies Iran is fueling and funding, directly and indirectly, from Yemen to Turkey and even Pakistan, leaving us open to ponder upon the possibility and practicality of such an alliance.
From the American perspective, it fell right into Trump’s First America policy as it could project American influence without a major military presence, pass the security responsibility to the allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia and create jobs at home with huge arms sales. “From the U.S. perspective, the stronger the Saudi deterrent is, the lower the risk of any military confrontation with Iran,” stated Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies to the Washington Post.
This seemed to come into reality when Trump struck $110 billion in weapon sales with Riyadh, followed by the Abraham Accords a few years later—a wave of normalization deals between Israel and UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Joe Biden campaigned on a strict anti-Saudi sentiment, pledging to turn the kingdom into a “pariah” and punishing it for its crimes like the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
However, owing to record high inflation, and impending global recession coupled with other ground realities, United States President Joe Biden met Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in July 2022. Apart from Iran, American Middle East policy on other fronts like normalization deals and Syria has not changed much since Joe Biden came to office. Above all, such a military coalition can also put a stop to further Russian incursion in the region.
Iran: A Common Enemy
The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) was announced in May 2017 with the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. Historically the Arab countries have seen Israel as their common enemy but with the alliances shifting over time and the Middle East not being any different today, the common enemy is not Israel but Iran.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both have serious tensions with Tehran including a messy and multi-layered war in Yemen which has cost both countries a lot, both politically and economically, with no end in sight. Moreover, Bahrain is also threatened with the possibility of the Iranian role in inciting its Shia majority to take over the country with the presence of the Iranian-backed Al-Ashtar Brigade—designated as a terrorist organization by United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states.
The Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Baqir Brigade and Quwat-ul-Ridha in Syria, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Harkat al-Sabireen in occupied Palestine, and Katai’b Hezbollah and others in Iraq are a few examples of the Iranian armed network wrecking violence and spreading the Iranian version of Islam across the region. Recently, Jordan’s King Abdullah II stated that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” There is no shortage of motivation among Arab states for pursuing a western-backed security framework to counter Iran.
Middle Eastern states have already been cooperating under various security arrangements. Saudi Arabia is already heading the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) of 41 countries from the MENA region. IMAFT was announced in 2015 and assembled to contain the influence of Iranian proxies and tackle other terrorist threats like ISIS.
Ties with Israel
The Gulf countries no longer recognize Israel as a geopolitical threat. The Abraham Accords can pave the way for deeper military dealings between Tel Aviv and the Arab states, maybe even a permanent coalition. Egyptian-Israeli cooperation, particularly in maintaining the security of the Sinai Peninsula, has only increased as compared to the past.
According to recent reports, Israel is also building a new Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) in the region with Gulf’s Arab nations. High-ranking officials from Israel and the Arab states met in Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the issue. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel have also gotten closer in recent development. The United States brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel for the ownership transfer of the key Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which control the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba.
The development is interesting because Saudi Arabia has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel but it still signed a deal with Israel without actually signing a deal with Israel. Lastly, Iran may be the biggest rival to Saudi dominance in the region, but it isn’t the only one. Turkey is currently on course for another military operation in northern Syria despite the calls of concern from the United States. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also been on opposite sides of the conflict in Libya and although leaders of both countries are hailing a new era of cooperation after recent meetings, the future of their regional rivalry is not yet certain.
Historically, the United States has been the whole guarantor of peace in the Middle East but successive administrations in Washington, since Obama, have gradually decreased their military footprint in the region. This, in part, is due to the other hotspots in Eastern Europe and to counter China in the Indo-Pacific and the Arabs are aware of that. “Arabs are increasingly aware that their past bets on Western powers, especially the US, may not have been successful,” Ahmed el-Sayed Ahmed, a scholar at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told DW.
Challenges to Arab NATO
Despite all of these positives, the road to an effective coalition is not easy. The Middle East is the graveyard of such failed US-led alliances. In the 1950s, the United States made a fruitless attempt to cobble together freshly oil-rich countries into a coalition against the Soviet Union under Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) or less formerly remembered as the Baghdad Pact.
The Arab League, the oldest intra-Arab framework, has also failed over the years to maintain peace and order in the region owing to the lack of commitment among members toward common goals. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) could’ve been described as successful due to collaboration in trade and energy projects but it has also failed as a regional mediator in the face of key security issues like Iran and Yemen. Modern efforts like the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) and Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) have also remained irrelevant since their inception.
The first and foremost hurdle often shared by the critics is internal sectarian divisions and political differences among the potential members of such an alliance. There is no other argument for the fact that since its inception, Saudi Arabia has been exporting its own rigid, Salafist, literal, and ultraconservative view of Islam. In a world of extremist ideologies Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” according to William McCants, a Brookings Institute scholar.
It was the same state-funded proselytization that resulted in the birth of modern-day Houthis in Yemen. How can Saudi Arabia embark on a mission to counter terrorism when it’s the home of 15 out of 19 9/11 highjackers? When it has supplied more suicide bombers to Iraq than any other country and more fighters to the Islamic State compared to any other country except Tunisia. When its citizens have been rolling funds for the Islamic state. When European Parliament and Germany accused the Kingdom of financing terrorism.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the biggest political movements in the Middle East and the force behind the Arab Spring, is also the bone of contention between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Qatar due to Doha’s continuous support of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the root cause of the 2017 Gulf crisis which was marked by a years-long GCC blockade of Qatar by the above-mentioned states.
Although the Gulf states lifted the blockade last year, the major differences between both parties are far from resolved. Qatar is the home of the largest US military installation in the Middle East and has been designated as a major non-NATO ally in the region but the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only obstacle.
Different Views on Iran
Although Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain have led the anti-Iran rhetoric, and Egypt has backed Riyadh due to its certain financial issues, the GCC is split regarding Iran. Many Arab countries do not recognize Iran as a major security threat. Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait have always envisioned Iran through the prism of their own national interest, instead of that of Riyadh.
Qatar re-established ties with Tehran amid the Gulf crisis which assisted it in bringing food supplies through Iranian airspace. Their relations have only strengthened since then, manifesting in recent talks of expanding bilateral ties and jointly condemning the killing of journalists by Israel in the occupied territory. Oman and Iran also enjoy friendly relations historically with burgeoning trade and a recent agreement to jointly develop an oil field in the Persian Gulf.
Iran-Kuwait relations have witnessed a lot of ups and downs but Kuwait, in general, has followed the path of equilibrium. It has mediated Saudi-Iranian talks and refused to allow the use of its territory to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Iran has the ability to potentially fill its demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG) because interestingly, Kuwait is a net importer of gas despite having huge oil and gas reserves.
Experts have also hinted at the issue of interoperability of the defense equipment and intelligence sharing among the various potential members of this alliance. The Egyptian Air Force operates the F-16 and Mig-25, while the Saudis operate F-15SA and European Eurofighter Typhoon, with UAE using French Mirage along with the F-16.
Another challenge is the exclusion of major regional actors e.g. Iraq and Turkey from the alliance. Iraq shares a 58-kilometer strip over the Persian Gulf, whereas, Turkey, apart from being a NATO member, is also one of the strongest military power in the region and has successfully projected its influence in Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It raises serious questions about the practicality of a potential alliance.
Lastly, Saudi Arabia and its allies should also realize that such an alliance will ultimately deepen the existing sectarian wedges in the region. Countries with significant Shia populations like Bahrain, Kuwait, and even Saudi Arabia itself, can seriously bet on increasing domestic tensions if they move ahead with this idea.
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