Are Trump’s plans for an Arab NATO realistic?

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 – favour 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.

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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