The creation of a military-political bloc of eight Arab nations (Arab NATO) under the patronage of Washington has been postponed to next year. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa at the annual security conference in Manama announced a new approximate term for the formation of the Middle East Strategic Alliance – MESA. This is with the participation of six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, besides Jordan and Egypt.
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Against the background of the unresolved crisis around Qatar, the Cooperation Council of the Arab States of the Persian Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) has become frozen in uncertainty. The expanded unification under the loud signboard of MESA often referred to as the “Arab NATO”, is aimed at overcoming the inter-Arab differences.
The project was initially discussed at the political and expert levels in the spring of last year when two Arab leaders visited Washington. The crown prince (at that time still a vice-crown prince) and the Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, had discussed the idea at the White House with President Donald Trump on a five-day tour (March 13-17). Consultations around Trump’s ideas with a clear anti-Iranian context were positive. The sides agreed that such an analogue of the Euro-Atlantic bloc to the Arab world is necessary to counter the growing influence of Iran in the region.
The composition of the “Arab NATO” should be made as wide as possible, and the attitude towards it by the regional powers should be minimally hostile. After the inter-Arab crisis that erupted in June 2017 around Qatar, the prospects for a broad anti-Iranian alliance, operating with the minimal regional opposition, became even slimmer.
Meanwhile, sources in the US administration have assured that Trump’s decisive mindset to reach the goal remains and the degree of this mood rises amid the approach to the forum that was tentatively planned in Washington for October 12-13. In mid-autumn, the US president intended to gather the leaders of the eight Arab countries and very seriously consider the possibility of forming a new military-political bloc in the Middle East.
They are expected to cover areas such as the creation of a unified regional system of air and missile defence, military training and conducting joint exercises, as well as close cooperation between counter-terrorism services. If MESA proves its effectiveness, it is possible to appeal to closer military ties, even concluding an agreement on collective security, mutual assistance and the formation of joint military contingents of the ‘Arab NATO’.
The initiative to create an Arab alliance belongs to US President Trump. This fact, like the predominant anti-Iran component of the future bloc, is not obscured by the leadership of the eight specified states. However, the large-scale American project in the Middle East, set to become the ‘pillar of stability’ of the region, which the head of Bahrain’s foreign affairs agency recalled last Saturday, faced serious barriers on its way. In the first half of this year, the chances for an alliance’s shock pace was insignificant. But after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, implementation of the idea had to be finally postponed to the perspective of the new year.
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At the Manama conference, the idea of disrupting the earlier planned creation of the ‘Arab NATO’ because of what happened in early October at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul Consulate did not work. On the contrary, through Riyadh’s efforts, the issue of mutual disagreement and suspicion of the Trump administration towards the Al Saud family was diligently retouched. At the forum, KSA Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir pointed out the ‘inviolability’ of the Kingdom’s relations with the United States, despite the incident with Khashoggi.
Representatives of the US administration responded to the responsiveness that was conciliatory to the Saudis. However, not losing sight of the occasion to note the need for a ‘full and transparent investigation’ of the murder of the journalist. The murder of the Khashoggi can undermine stability in the Middle East, so the US will take additional measures against those involved in the crime, the head of the US military, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in Manama.
“The murder in the diplomatic mission is a concern in accordance with our interests regarding peace and respect for human rights,” said Mattis. According to him, “when a nation ceases to respect international standards and the law, it violates regional stability when it is most needed.”
The State Department shares the position of the Pentagon on the need to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia in the format of a strategic partnership, but with the same indication that there is no alternative to the ‘transparent’ investigation of the Khashoggi case. “The strategic interests we have shared with Saudi Arabia remain in force,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on October 23.
However, it is safe to assume that the Khashoggi case may become a kind of watershed in US relations with Arab allies, requiring Washington to have a more restrained, balanced and pragmatic approach to everything related to relations with the ruling dynasties on the Arabian Peninsula. Especially with a binding project such as the MESA at stake.
According to some sources beyond the Trump of the United States, the Arab monarchies through diplomatic channels have proposed moving the creation of the ‘Alliance of Eight’ to next year. One of the main rationales indicated the expediency of familiarizing with the first results of the impact of expanded US sanctions on the economy and political situation in Iran.
Then they will proceed to the next stage of the strategy of isolation and deterrence of the ‘Shiite adversary’. In other words, the Arabs of the Gulf, the Jordanians and Egyptians who joined them want to wait for the economic effect of the American sanctions before registering their military-political alliance.
More time was required, taking into account the real intra-Arab situation at the time of the summer-autumn of the current year. The crisis around Qatar hung in the air with an unresolved issue, the military campaign of the Saudi coalition in Yemen took an impasse. The picture of strategic uncertainty in the Arab world is complemented by a narrowing of the field of influence of the monarchies of the Gulf on the situation in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon – points of indirect confrontation with Iran. Nowhere does Tehran intend to concede and continues to actively seek to strengthen its positions. Therefore, the idea of the pre-economic weakening of the Islamic Republic, provoking mass unrest on its territory is intended to anticipate a more responsible step, which will be the establishment of the ‘Arab NATO’.
Neither Trump nor his Middle Eastern allies can fail the MESA. This means that we should wait for a more favourable moment, of course, using a temporary pause in the same anti-Iranian vein, but without its institutionalization. In late September, some Middle Eastern publications stated that the Trump administration intends to convene a summit at which a new regional alliance will be announced in Washington in January 2019.
In response to the Gulf Arab proposal for a postponement, the Trump administration has set forth its conditions and one of them is the achievement of the Saudi coalition of a military breakthrough in Yemen, an indicator of which is intended to be the fall of the Hussite rebel port of Hodeidah. And, of course, clear signs of KSA and the United Arab Emirates’s readiness to reconcile with Qatar, without which the working capacity of the planned ‘Arab NATO’ will obviously be doomed.
There is also the factor of Israel and the still-unveiled ‘new plan’ of Trump on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement. The US president is looking for the right moment to present the ‘deal of the century’, as he likes to call his plan of reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Trump needs a consolidated position of the leading forces of the Arab world on this issue.
Only Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties and official diplomatic relations with the Jewish state of the Arab G-8. The monarchies of the Gulf visibly revived confidential contacts with Israel, but have not made a breakthrough in relations with it. Factors affecting general Arab and Islamic solidarity, on which the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are built, are affected. Both multilateral associations may fall apart if official recognition is granted by Riyadh and other Arab monarchy capitals of the State of Israel. And this is expected to be followed not only by the final split of the Middle East through the Shiite (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) camps but also by the activation of ‘extremist elements’ in the territory of the Arabian kingdoms and the Emirates.
And yet the MESA project remains afloat. At least because of the great interest in its implementation by the United States and Israel, and also taking into account the attempts of Saudi Arabia to ‘make amends’ in connection with the incident at the KSA Istanbul Consulate. The Israelis took advantage of the discrepancy that overtook the Arabs for their own benefit. Take the same confidential visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week to Oman, which, given the traditionally smooth relations between this Arab sultanate and Iran, just recently seemed impracticable.
Inter-Arab frictions, the deterioration of the relations of most of the eight participants in the future ‘Arab NATO’ with Turkey, the need to divert the threat of a direct military confrontation with Iran make the Gulf monarchies think and act in a non-standard manner.
Oman is forced to turn to various possibilities to resist in these difficult times. And, of course, to recall its mediator function in the Gulf, the ‘transfer channel’ between Iran and its geopolitical enemies, as was the case in 2009 (in the first year of the presidency of the White House’s previous owner Barack Obama), when the Omanian monarch accepted the role of mediator in indirect secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington .
Taking into account the above and some other circumstances, the establishment of the ‘Arab NATO’ can be shifted to March – April 2019. By this time, the issues of concern to Washington and Riyadh should become clearer, and the situation around the Khashoggi case will be defused. In any case, Iran will not be left alone, it will surely bring strong ‘geopolitical optics’ to it as soon as all its opponents in the region resolve the turmoil that has arisen between them.