09 December 2018

Arab NATO - Illusion or reality?

Ştefan Oprea

Image source: Mediafax

In this volatile security environment, the future of the region depends on what local powers define as priorities and how they are trying to reach them. A strategic alliance for security and prosperity in the Middle East could supplant the lack of an authoritarian actor to manage conflicts and stop the serious instincts of autocracy.

The idea of ​​establishing an Arab Alliance alike the NATO model dates back to the beginning of the "Arab Spring" 2011 demonstrations. It was resumed in 2015, but the Obama administration was concerned at that time to adopt a gradually exit strategy from the region. In the last period, however, the subject has recovered, and the Trump administration is considering this possibility.

Under an unofficial name of "Arab NATO" or the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), it is desirable to join a permanent military coalition of the six Arab states in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain alongside Egypt and Jordan.

The creation of a security pact in this form is being dealt with by analysts based on the realities in this area, the opinions being different. From this point of view, the idea of ​​an Arab NATO is not convincing enough, though, it has turned out that military constructions have often been able to overcome political precautions.

Such strong political convergence would inevitably amplify the military relations between the Gulf countries, knowing very well that all Arab countries are allies but at the same time are regional competitors. From the military capabilities point of view (diversified, diverse and non-interoperable), their integration would be an enormous challenge.


US Role

According to US officials, the Trump Administration is trying to create a new political and security alliance with the six Arab states of Gulf, Egypt and Jordan. Although the main purpose is to counteract the expansion of Iran's influence in the region, Washington also wants deeper cooperation between these countries on missile defence, military training, counter-terrorism, and last but not least, strengthening regional economic and diplomatic ties.

Convinced that the plan to form a so-called "Arab NATO" of the Sunni Muslim allies will likely raise tensions between the United States and Shi'ite Iran, it is being developed and sustained to a large extent by the Gulf countries, being attracted by the prospect that the MESA will serve as a bastion against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism and will bring stability to the Middle East. The idea has strong support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which, along with the US, accuse Iran of destabilizing the region, causing disturbances in some Arab countries through proxy groups, and increasingly threatening Israel. Without being able to foresee very clearly how the Alliance could immediately counter Tehran, the common interests in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, as well as the defence of the Gulf shipping lines (the world's main oil supply routes), demonstrate that the Alliance is possible achievable.

Designed as a front against Iranian aggression, terrorism and extremism, this Alliance should have been announced during a US summit - the Gulf States initially planned this summit for October this year but it was postponed for January 2019 (unlikely to take place).


Situation in the area

Several internal and external factors have contributed fundamentally to the fragility of the Gulf situation which, however, has never been sufficiently stable.

In the previous administration, on the growing influence of Iran, the region and Syria, the US has replied that it is a problem that needs to be resolved through the contribution of regional actors and which should rely less on US support.

A complex internal situation, generated by the desire for democratic change among ordinary people (the effects of the Arab Spring), and its consequences on the governments of the Arab republics, the richer and more stable monarchies of the Gulf, led the leaders of the whole region to demonstrate their inability to accept the wishes of the "Arab street".

The emergence of leaders in the region such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (MbS) in Saudi Arabia, seen as key members of a new group of new leaders revitalizing the Middle East, created the aspiration that peace in zone can be installed anticipating of improving the economic, political and social situation.

On the other hand, developing the informal but also official links of the Gulf States with Israel, coupled with the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, has angered the Arab population. While Israel has no diplomatic relations with Bahrain, Oman or the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Oman last month, attending the Minister of Communications, Ayoub Kara, at a Dubai conference, the Minister of Culture at a judo competition Abu Dhabi and Economy Minister Eli Cohen at a conference in Bahrain support this statement.

Under these circumstances, the lack of a space of reconciliation or compromise between authoritarian governments and their democratic or Islamic opponents will amplify the volatility of the situation and create turbulence in the region that will alter the relationship with the West, generating conflicts at the scale of a civil war.

Looking back, we will see that the geographic proximity of these states, the similarity of political systems and common socio-cultural positions have led the six Gulf states to associate with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since 1981, a political, economic and security alliance with the immediate aim of protecting itself from the threats of the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988).

Regarding security agreements, in 1984, the GCC decided to set up a territorial coalition force, the "Peninsula Shield Force," charged with defending the six nations. It would be composed of infantry, armor, artillery, and combat support elements from each state, with a total of 10,000 soldiers in two brigades. The force will be deployed in Saudi Arabia near the borders of Kuwait and Iraq. In 1992, the structure will reach 5,000 people, and in 2006 it will reach 7,000 soldiers.

The debut of the "Arab Spring" makes the "Peninsula Shield Force" in March 2011 to have around 40,000 people and make it obligatory that any intervention of force include the participation of all GCC member states.

During its existence, the coalition territorial force (approximately 3,000 soldiers) took part in the release of Kuwait in March 1991, and in February 2003, 10,000 soldiers and two naval vessels were deployed in Kuwait before the start of the Iraq war, to protect Kuwait from potential Iraqi attacks. The last participation was in 2011 when, at the request of the Bahrain government, part of this force (about 10%) had the mission to defend Bahrain's strategic military infrastructure for any foreign interference and to protect its borders.

However, in recent years, the situation in the area has deteriorated. A dispute between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government, started back in 2004, has turned into a bloody war that grinds the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen. In September 2014, Hutai's insurgency took control of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and headed south toward Aden's second largest city. In response to the Houthi rebels' progress, a coalition of Arab states launched Operation Decision Storm in March 2015 to restore the legitimate government of Yemen. Without going into the details of this conflict, I would like to mention only the members of this Arab Coalition, made up of the internationally recognized Yemeni government forces, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan, Jordan and the Academies mercenaries (ex Blackwater) and the fact that it is supported by US, British and French intelligence services and consistent logistical support from them. Although with a formal organization and infrastructure similar to NATO, it proves to be divided and ineffective in the face of the challenges created by the unstructured terrestrial forces, the rugged terrain that has greatly influenced the effectiveness of air operations, the quality and continuity of information provided by Western allies and, last but not least, by a ruthless enemy who has committed himself to unimaginable atrocities. In addition, tensions and disagreements within the Coalition have severely complicated the situation as well as its ability to remain focused on the mission, diminishing cohesion on the battlefield.

Faced with challenges, the Arab Coalition, supported by the international community, proves to be incapable of achieving a quick and decisive victory.

Oman's neutrality policy towards Iran and its possible involvement in the conflict in Yemen demonstrates the divergence of political views. Along with Oman, Kuwait enjoyed peace, and had close co-operation with Iran. From this perspective, Kuwait has recently demonstrated a growing independence from the geopolitical influence of Saudi Arabia, even if they are worried about the possibility of receiving a "treatment" similar to Qatar because of this relatively autonomous foreign policy. Iranian-Iraqi Kuwait's experience of the 1980s, the Gulf Oil War, and Shi'a-sponsored Shi'i terrorism throughout this decade have prompted Kuwait leaders to avoid an excessively contradictory relationship with Iran.

Another potential impediment to this future alliance is the one-year old rupture between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, motivated by a possible unconfirmed support of terrorism in the region. And this one when Qatarul hosts the largest US airbase in the region. Another episode in support of these statements is the position of the Gulf States towards Qatar over its concerns about its foreign policy, including its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. The goal of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia to permanently ostracize its rival, the Qatar, led in 2017 to a real air and naval land blockade, but it failed lamentably, and moreover, it seems that the main winner of the conflict would be Qatar.

The Khashoggi case, if the assassination is confirmed, could become a heavy burden on Saudi Arabia, with major implications for relations with Turkey, the West, including the United States.

Although the Trump administration has had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it regards as a bastion against Iran's ambitions in the region, the President's recent tough statements about bilateral relations show an intransigent attitude towards this situation. "We protect Saudi Arabia, you mean they are rich and love the King, King Salman. But I said, King - we're protecting you - you may not be there in two weeks without us. - you have to pay for your soldiers, "President Trump said in a rally in Southaven, Mississippi.

If Khashoggi is found to be killed, the West will not be able to remain silent, will have to prioritize its values, and the idea of ​​an "Arab NATO" will certainly be rejected or postponed.



In a special relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has been and continues to be involved in all the problems that surround the Gulf area. Beneficiary of impressive financial support during the time the army removed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, Cairo declared himself "body and soul on the side of the Gulf brothers." The recent statement by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in which he promised military support to the Arab states of the Gulf, where their security is jeopardized (Al-Ahram interview, November 7, 2018), strengthens the common position, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, against Qatar's policies towards extremist groups and Iran. Also, participation in the Houthi rebel coalition, supported by Iran in Yemen, is more than interested in the Gulf issue.


With this optimistic picture, we find that this security construction would have minimal chances of realization due to the inconsistency in determining priorities on the nature of the threats and its sources. A first conclusion is that it is unlikely that an Arab NATO will acquire a significant operational substance and will not be able to replace the bilateral ties that each of these Arab countries has with the United States.

But can this final conclusion be considered? I say not!

When I say this, I rely on the fact that there is a possibility of a strategic reaction to the current impasse in Yemen and Iran-related issues. Also, a wider US involvement in the fight against terrorism could result in a reconnection of Coalition members around common threats.

The Arab coalition, together with the US and its allies, can join forces to combat Tehran's strategy of gaining control over the Ormuz straits, which jeopardizes the interests of the international community beyond this alliance. Moreover, in the same allied formula, the links between the Iranian source of funding and the subordinated and coordinated proxies of Tehran can be destroyed.

An Arab NATO would be a military and security alliance dedicated to defence and isolated from economic, diplomatic or political disputes, capable of connecting its strategic interests and global security, to the detriment of individual interests and short-term goals.

The United States can play a vital role in shaping, strengthening and supporting a developing Arab NATO that should cultivate all willing and able partners against all threats (Hezbollah's threats are the most conclusive example).

A military alliance based on commitment and rigor, with the US being part of it, may become the key to a successful Arab alliance.