BEIRUT — With tensions remaining high in the Middle East, and as U.S. presence in the region evolves, optimism that an “Arab NATO” can be established appears to be dimming.
First floated by U.S. and Arab leaders in 2017, the notion of a Mideast collective defense alliance — formally named the Middle East Strategic Alliance — would include six Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar) plus Egypt and Jordan. The advantage: These Gulf countries already share the benefits of respective military capabilities in joint training and operations, such as the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen.
But the challenge that experts argue may be too grand to overcome, and which is quite distinctive from challenges faced by NATO allies in Europe, is the state of regional tensions. A strategy for collective defense is far easier to define and execute in times of relative peace, versus conflict.
“The very use of NATO as a shortcut is problematic,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Nothing that gets built in the Middle East will look like even the most watered down NATO model.”
The American factor
Among the factors that some believe could influence the success or failure of a U.S.-led initiative to unite Mideast allies in a cooperative pact for collective defense: actual U.S. presence and strategy in the region.
That presence is expected to shift, given the announcement from President Donald Trump that troops will leave Syria. But with troops on the ground in Syria, the U.S. is balancing control of two areas: Al-Tanaf, which provides access to Damascus, and Abu Kamal, which provides access to Homs. Both can still be managed from the Iraqi side, argues Lebanese Member of Parliament Gen. Wehbe Katicha, a member of the Strong Republic bloc.
“The withdrawal of 2,000 soldiers from the inside of Syria to its external borders in Iraq will not affect the American strategy,” he said. “It will only be a repositioning of troops in the region.”
And U.S. military bases in the region remain, like Al-Udeid in Qatar and Naval Support Activity in Bahrain.
Further drawdowns by the U.S. could be problematic, but are unlikely, considering larger plans by the Trump administration to grow cooperation and influence in the region — most notably with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“What if the U.S. reduces its military presence too much in the region? Then this Arab NATO, when formed, will start planning and working independently of [the] U.S. and Western alliance,” said an industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. That reduction would never happen, he added, particularly because it could create a vacuum for other powers to move in on, namely China or Russia.
Regional presence aside
U.S. presence is the least of the problems facing the formation of an Arab NATO.
“It is realistic to assume that the U.S. will continue to have a significant military presence in the [U.S. Central Command’s] area of responsibility for the foreseeable future,” said Aram Nerguizian, the co-director of the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “But with or without U.S. forces in the region, creating any kind of unified chain of command with an eye on collective defense was always going to be a challenge.
“The so-called Arab NATO is made all the more complex by the mix of divisions in the Gulf and the divergent assumptions about burden- and role-sharing in any collective defense framework.”
For one, the eight nations that would be part of the alliance operate different types of military platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between Qatar and other Gulf countries remains unresolved, following a blockade of the former. Such challenges of military strategy and geopolitics contributed to the ultimate failure of the short-lived Central Treaty Organization, formerly the Middle East Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact Organization. That mutual security organization existed from 1955 to 1979 and was composed of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom; until March 1959 it included Iraq, and had its headquarters was in Baghdad.
And while an Arab NATO would be U.S.-led, the bulk of any financial burden associated with a regional alliance would likely be shouldered by Mideast states.
“It is a mistake to focus on Trump to understand contemporary Gulf dynamics,” said Hokayem of IISS. “Trump may have served as an enabler for the Saudi-Qatar crisis, but more fundamentally, U.S. retrenchment started during the Obama administration and is likely to endure beyond Trump. Trump adds fuel to already difficult situations, but he did not create them.”
Another shared issue among the eight countries is Iran and its proxy militias. Much as Russia is cited as a concern of smaller NATO allies in eastern Europe, Iran poses a distinct threat to certain members of any Mideast alliance.
“Iran continues to cause risks to other nations and act as a destabilizing agent across this region. They aim to disrupt the balance of power,” the commander of U.S. Air Force Central Command, Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, said during the 2nd Manama Airpower Symposium on Nov. 13.
“When the Iranian military exercises are aimed at the blocking at the Strait of Hormuz, the potential of miscalculation of military intent has strategic consequences. Their actions are directly aimed to threaten all of our economies," he said.
Such complications create an air of skepticism that any unified strategy of defense could be established — or more specifically, that a cooperative could actually influence or shape regional security.
“A likely scenario is that the various countries will agree on a formal name and snazzy acronym, adopt an ugly logo, build a few buildings and prepare PowerPoint slides,” Hokayem said. “But practical implementation of defense initiatives is unlikely.”
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Agnes Helou was a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.