The US is pushing the Arab coalition to create a new political and security alliance with six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, in a bid to counter Iran’s expansion in the region.
The concept of an integrated Arab polity based on shared culture and historical experience, which is at the heart of the Arab League’s charter, dates to the Islamic caliphates. Modern pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism, arose in opposition to Ottoman rule and 19th century attempts to impose the Turkic language and culture on Arab subjects.
Contemporary Arab coalition was formally founded in March 1945 as the Arab League, a loose confederation of twenty-two Arab nations, including Palestine. The League was chartered in response to concerns about postwar colonial divisions of territory as well as strong opposition to the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine, but it has long been criticized for disunity and poor governance.
After WWII, the pan-Arab project gained a charismatic champion in Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, but several critical developments over the following decades exposed the limits of League solidarity. A key turning point was the 1962 Arab coalition interference in Yemen, seemingly part of Nasser’s larger plan to bring down all monarchies within the Arab world and the House of Saud in particular. The current Houthi rebellion in Yemen, with Iran and Hezbollah replacing Nasser, has given Saudi Arabia a sense of déjà vu.
In November of 2017, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman vowed to defeat terrorism using resources available to the Islamic Military Alliance, a so-called ‘Arab NATO’. Syria, Iraq and Iran were not invited to the alliance. The alliance between Saudi Arabia and US has been viewed as a counterweight to Iran’s growing strategic importance.
The Arab Coalition in Yemen is facing three internal challenges: differences between UAE and Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s blockade, and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Despite these complications, new developments show that over the long run there is a likelihood of a strategic response to the stalemate in Yemen and to other Iran-related problems in the form of an upgrading of the scattered and divided Arab Coalition into a formal and organized infrastructure similar to NATO.
For Washington, an ‘Arab NATO’ would be an effective opposition to Iran with whom tensions have led to threats of war. Hence, US wants to see deeper cooperation between the countries on missile defence, military training, counter-terrorism and other issues such as strengthening regional economic and diplomatic ties. Talks scheduled for September in Washington is expected to formalise the so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).
“MESA 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. Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accuse Iran of destabilising the region, fomenting unrest in Arab countries through proxy groups, notably Hezbollah, and increasingly threatening Israel.
On the other hand, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has reiterated that the US has not instituted a policy of regime change or collapse in Iran, addressing days of back-and-forth bellicose rhetoric between officials which included threats of war. While these threats are reminiscent of Kim Jong Un and Trump’s riposte, Iran remains a wholly different challenge, one which the “Arab NATO” hopes to bring down.
A senior Iranian official, however, said the approach would have “no result” beyond “deepening the gaps between Iran, its regional allies and the U.S.-backed Arab countries.” With no formal outline, it can be assumed that objectives of the Gulf heavyweights will include the use money and arms to counter Iran’s support for Yemen, and prevent the blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.
Another goal is to set up a regional anti-missile defence system. Although Iran remains committed to the JCPOA limits on nuclear warheads, they still have a large contingent of ICBMs alongside an elite special force known as Basij (IRGC). The offensive might of Iran requires necessary regional defence equipment which has not materialised in spite of years of negotiations between the Arab countries and US.
NATO has established formal relations with many of the Arab Sunni states as part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Directed by the US, NATO countries could provide training, intelligence, technology, equipment like unmanned vehicles and the “new triad” system. However, Israel, a major non-NATO ally remains a fragile topic for the alliance. Egypt and Jordan have established ‘friendly’ ties with Israel, but it is unlikely that the Arab states forgo Palestinian independence for better strategic relations with Israel.
The foremost obstacle to the planned alliance is a 13-month-old rift between an Arab-Emirati alliance and Qatar, home to the largest U.S. air base in the region. Accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and instituting a blockade has allowed for a closer relationship between the small Arab kingdom and Iran.
Our assessment is that rather than being distracted by differences in short term parochial goals, the partners must work to create the NATO of the Arab world. We believe that the purpose of the Arab NATO would be military and security alliance dedicated to defence, insulted from economic, diplomatic and political disputes.