Since the Obama administration’s push to develop an “Arab NATO” security alliance through the Arab League fell apart, the Trump administration focused instead on building such a pact among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a few other close allies. The pact, officially designated the Middle East Security Alliance (MESA), would enshrine Saudi military leadership among America’s alliance network in the region and largely focus on Saudi-Iran strategic competition. The political rows inside the GCC are currently stalling efforts towards a unified approach to security policy and, for now, deliberations seem to function as a vehicle for U.S.-facilitated conflict resolution among the council’s membership.
Some, like retired Admiral Staviridis, have praised the idea of an Arab NATO as potentially a strong bulwark against Iran and also terrorism. Writing a military assessment of a possible Arab NATO for the Army War College, Jean-Loup Samann, argues that the Arab states have a common understanding of threats and challenges. He says they all see their security environment through the prism of an unnerving Iranian threat, making the obstacles before meaningful security cooperation traversable.
But such an undertaking is a herculean task for even industrialized democracies. These Arab states have suboptimal governing institutions and varying levels of military professionalism compared to their NATO counterparts. Assessments of their history in strategic and policy cooperation do not inspire confidence. Outside of episodes of acute national-security fear, the drive for coordination is mellowed by sovereignty concerns. It is thus understandable that many observers have dismissed the idea as unworkable and questioned whether such an arrangement can ever achieve meaningful operational substance.
Purpose and Challenges
One major impediment to the formation of a NATO-type pact is the concern among U.S. allies that increased self-sufficiency would facilitate American disengagement. Samann says the “policy mix of support to multilateral projects and reassurance measures―made at the bilateral level―sometimes has seemed contradictory.” This challenge is to some extent being addressed by the fact that the United States has already decided to withdraw some forces from the region. In the context of the 2017 National Security Strategy, the Pentagon is redeploying some capabilities away from the Middle East towards other theaters focused on China and Russia.
Numerous statements by U.S. officials to reporters indicate that the primary purpose of an Arab security pact would be to allow for the United States to reduce its resource-intensive presence in the region. In that context, efforts to build an Arab NATO can be seen as an exercise in buck-passing. They two issues have not been explicitly linked by officials, but they do seem to be part of the same policy current. America’s Arab allies will now have to compensate for departing U.S. capabilities and their ability to do so will largely be the standard by which the worth of such an alliance will be measured in the immediate term.
There are significant divergences on the perception of threat, methods of addressing challenges and alliance distribution among MESA’s prospective members that will deter commitment. Qatar values its relationship with Iran and has even floated an alliance with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Oman is married to a policy of neutrality. Lebanon and Iraq have large Shia populations, Kuwait does as well, and is primarily concerned with stability in Iraq. Jordan is far more concerned with Israel who is being touted as an unofficial member. Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may be reliant on Saudi largess to maintain his hold on Cairo wants to keep conflicts with countries like Iran political.
In short, some of the security dynamics that drive countries towards preliminary conversations about MESA and military exercises also presents those countries with concerns about making hardened military commitments to an alliance that is primarily anti-Iran. Therefore, some progress towards more military cooperation, even the birth of some official security arrangement, is not necessarily the harbinger of ultimate success in forming a viable military alliance.
Whether because of diverging interpretations of Iran’s intentions or its capabilities, or the multipolar nature of the Middle East that constrains any budding hegemon, Iran is simply not a compelling enough foil the way the Soviet menace was for NATO.
Saudi Arabia challenges confidence as the titular leader of this alliance and the primary driver of its policies. To much of the GCC’s discontent, the Crowned Prince of Saudi Arabia and his counterpart in the UAE have consolidated power in their countries and in the GCC, where traditional consultative modes of decisionmaking have been abandoned in favor of the brash directives of what Persian Gulf region scholar Kristian Ulrichsen deemed a “hyper-hawkish geopolitical axis running from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi.” But Saudi Arabia’s imposing presence has been a concern for some time. In the words of Bruce Riedel, “The smaller Gulf states . . . resisted moves for greater unity in military affairs or a single currency because they feared Saudi dominance would be inevitable. Cooperation and consultation but not integration.”
Nowhere has the prospect of Saudi-UAE leadership been more disastrous than in Yemen. The two countries have abysmally failed in achieving any strategic objectives, including limiting Iran. The conflict enriched Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group that profited whenever the Saudi coalition “cut secret deals” with it. The group was often “effectively on the same side” and fought against Shia insurgents. Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and the American armed and trained Saudi coalition’s inability to even dislodge a group of shoe-less tribesman from Sanaa left experts marveling at their military inadequacy.
But for many experts assessing the prospects of “Arab NATO,” Yemen is less a catastrophic lesson than a proof of concept. Samann, for example, says “the Yemen crisis demonstrated that GCC countries progressively acquired the ability to intervene on their own in regional crisis.” Essentially, Saudi Arabia’s ability to cobble together a military coalition bodes well for their expeditionary capability and generally mirrors U.S.-led NATO operations. But it’s hard to imagine potential participants of MESA not being unsettled by the outcome.
An important concern for U.S. policymakers is whether empowering already emboldened allies like Saudi Arabia will further inflame the region, pulling U.S. resources back in. Oklahoma University Professor Joshua Landis, a noted expert on the region and Syria’s conflict, says this will likely bring more war. He tells me that the “U.S. urged Saudi Arabia to play a more assertive military role in Middle East politics and ended up getting the Yemen debacle. . . . Further militarizing the hostile relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not bring stability and security to the Middle East.”
A Plausible Path to MESA
It is, however, conceivable that the United States can piece together a more limited formal arrangement featuring a small number of countries that would act as a forum for cooperation. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain are clearly interested, and a few other countries can be convinced to join with the incentive of more military support and the fear of being locked out of the primary vehicle through which the United States disburses its assistance in the region. Still, others can be bribed. The idea has been floated that Egypt’s fee for participation may be the United States designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
But based on the issues raised, it is unlikely that such a military union could be formed with a serious “Article 5” type of feature. It’s also unlikely that the members of this union would be capable of replicating America’s rapid response capabilities in case of situations like another ISIS-type of outbreak or to pool and efficiently integrate their land forces to counter Iran’s alliance network in places like the Near East. The Near East—the area, essentially, encompassing the old Ottoman Empire—has been the focal point of security competition in the region and is a complex battlespace containing large populations, complicated demographics, and the vital interests and military entanglements of actors including Iran, Turkey, and Russia.
Chatham House scholar Micah Zenko says, for any Sunni military coalition, taking on such a mission would result in blowback. He tells me “[t]hey could respond to Iran's proxies today if they wanted to deploy and sustain an enormous ground presence. But they would suffer unacceptable losses, and probably strengthen Iran's relative power and influence in the end.” The military action of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE has largely been focused on the GCC’s core area of interest and Middle East’s periphery—Yemen and Libya.