BEIRUT — The Trump administration has in recent months been quietly working on creating a new security alliance comprised of six Gulf Arab states plus Egypt and Jordan, unofficially known as the “Arab NATO,” and also dubbed the “Middle East Strategic Alliance," or MESA.
The six Gulf Arab nations are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
According to the alliance’s objectives — which are expected to be formally announced during the Oct. 12-13 U.S.-Gulf summit in Washington — the new establishment will serve as a “bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism and will bring stability to the Middle East,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said.
The idea of establishing a broad Arab alliance dates back to the beginning of the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011. Such an alliance was again considered in 2015, but the previous U.S. administration under President Barack Obama was preoccupied with its adoption of a gradual withdrawal strategy from the region.
President Donald Trump, however, has shown more interest in the region through his tough rhetoric on Iran, accusing it of being the “head of international terrorism” and calling it a threat to U.S national security, the Gulf Cooperation Council and longtime U.S. ally Israel.
The idea of a security pact was re-emphasized ahead of Trump’s visit last year to Saudi Arabia, where he announced a massive arms deal. But according to a U.S. source who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, the alliance proposal “did not get off the ground.”
Some analysts believe MESA will remain an idea whose time may never come.
“The idea of an Arab NATO is wholly unconvincing. It will simply not happen,” said Yezid Sayegh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center think tank.
“It is less than four years since a grand anti-terror Islamic coalition was announced by Saudi Arabia and backed by the same countries, but nothing came of it despite some quiet, practical cooperation,” he added. “The GCC has failed time and again to agree a joint defense capability, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not even been able to wage a properly coordinated war in Yemen, so there is no evidence to suggest they can now organize something as ambitious as an Arab NATO.”
But for retired Kuwaiti Air Force Col. Zafer Alajmi, the military alliance could bring Gulf countries closer than ever.
“Military structures worldwide proved it can cross all political boundaries. Just as the U.K. abandoned its economic and political attachment from Europe, it remained part of the NATO. Furthermore, last spring’s maneuvers held in Saudi Arabia were attended by Qatari officers. All that proves that a true and stiff military cooperation is the key to a successful Arab NATO alliance,” he said.
Obstacles and goals
When asked if MESA is meant to restrain Iran from expanding its influence in the region, Sayegh said: “The alliance already exists between certain Arab countries and the U.S. to contain Iran, at least de facto.”
“It is not a true alliance, in the sense that each member does what it wants: Iran is now under pressure thanks to U.S. sanctions, not to anything Saudi Arabia has done; and Saudi Arabia receives U.S. support in Yemen, but the U.S. does not have strategic goals there; and the alliance never really existed in relation to Syria, where they have all failed,” he asserted.
“Is this really only about Iran?” Sayegh continued. “At one level, the idea is about keeping Iran out of the rest of the Gulf or MENA region. But at another, it may serve as a means of ostracizing countries like Qatar, which the Saudis cannot kick out of the GCC or Arab League.”
One industrial source believes it’s unlikely there will be an efficient Arab NATO because of the ongoing Qatar diplomatic crisis. “The continuation of the political dispute constitutes the main obstacle to achieving the planned goal because it will prevent a proper communication and coordination with Washington to actualize the American vision of a broad coalition," he said.
In June 2017, several countries cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar after accusing the country of supporting terrorism. These countries — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — imposed land, sea and air blockades on Qatar.
Qatar “does not look ready at this stage to accept any alliances to counter Iran’s influence and address the threats of Tehran’s allied forces,” the industrial source said.
“It is true that all Arab countries are allies, but they are regional competitors,” he said. “They all want to be recognized as the main player in the region and its center of gravity.
“All that and we still didn’t begin to address the enormous challenge of integrating militaries with widely divergent capabilities and in some cases non-interoperable weaponry.”
America’s vision of the alliance would likely include Oman, but one military source from a GCC member state told Defense News it is “unlikely that Oman will accept giving up on its policy of neutrality towards Iran, especially that it has already refused to participate in the Arab alliance to support legitimacy in Yemen.”
He added that while Saudi Arabia and the UAE view Tehran as an enemy, Kuwait and Oman have historically enjoyed peace and periods of close cooperation with Iran.
“Therefore, the chances of building an Arab alliance that includes the GCC states, Egypt and Jordan seem minimal, mostly because the Gulf countries are still inconsistent towards determining the priorities of their enemies and agreeing on the nature of the threats and its sources,” he said.
Sayegh noted the importance of bilateral relationships for the Trump administration. “What we can conclude is that an Arab NATO is unlikely to acquire meaningful operational substance, and will not replace the bilateral ties that each of these Arab countries has with the U.S., including Qatar,” he said.
Chirine Mouchantaf contributed stories on Middle East defense and wrote for SDArabia, an Arabic security and defense magazine.