Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (center) and the chairman of Jordan's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat (left), appear with other defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counterterrorism alliance, formed in 2015. Photo: AFP / Fayez Nureldine
Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (center) and the chairman of Jordan's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat (left), appear with other defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counterterrorism alliance, formed in 2015. Photo: AFP / Fayez Nureldine

Plans recently announced by the White House to set up a Middle East security organization – bringing the United States together with a range of its regional allies – have been widely dubbed an “Arab NATO.”

Known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the new grouping “will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East,” a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council told Reuters in late July.

Yet comparisons with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may only serve to highlight the regional antagonisms that have put paid to many such attempted alliances before.

At the same time, such moves may highlight a new phase in an escalating confrontation between the US and its Gulf Arab allies on the one hand, and Iran on the other – a confrontation that entered a new phase recently, with the return of US sanctions.

String of failures

Formed in 1949 to provide collective security against the perceived Soviet threat, NATO still has a powerful role in international affairs, from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Yet replicating this success elsewhere has always been fraught with difficulty.

During the Cold War years, a range of similar security pacts were attempted by the US and UK in other regions of the world, yet none of these lasted.

In the Middle East too, a string of security alliances were attempted, all ending in failure.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a variety of British and US-led initiatives, such as the Baghdad Pact, or Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), all had short lives, often collapsing in acrimony.

One major reason was the diametrically opposing views between Western and Middle Eastern states on the creation of Israel.

CENTO was dealt a major blow by the invasion of Cyprus by CENTO member Turkey in 1974, and was finally wound up in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution removed one of its other main pillars – the Shah’s Iran.

Since then, there have been other attempts to put together a regional military alliance.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed in 1981, has provision for all six members to come to each others’ aid in case of attack. Yet in 1990, when Iraq invaded GCC member Kuwait, initially, the council froze.

More recently, in early 2015, the heads of the 22 Arab League countries decided to set up a 42,000-strong joint Arab force. Yet this was agreed only in principle, with participation voluntary. A difference of opinion quickly erupted between Egypt and Saudi Arabia as to whom the force should be targeting. Egypt wanted a focus on operations against jihadist insurgents in the Sinai, while Saudi Arabia wanted it to have a role in Syria and Yemen.

Later that year, Saudi Arabia widened the field of potential partners when it announced the creation of the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).

This added non-Arab states to the mix – most notably Pakistan, which provided the first commander-in-chief. Yet it later appeared that the appointment of retired General Raheel Sharif had not been approved by the Pakistani authorities, who were concerned that the “Islamic” coalition did not include Islamic countries Iran or Iraq.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile leads a military coalition in Yemen, which includes units from a number of Arab states, backed logistically by the US and other Western powers.

Yet since the Gulf Crisis broke out in May 2017 and Qatar withdrew its forces from the coalition, only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan maintain troops on the ground.

A bigger enemy?

There has, therefore, been a mixed response in the region to the news that one more pact may now be attempted – the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).

In late July, White House officials revealed that they had been working on this with their “regional partners” for some time, ahead of a planned summit of potential members in Washington on October 12-13.

Such an alliance, if it ever came about, would have “a kind of Cold War logic of building an alliance to confront a bigger enemy,” said Dr Florence Gaub, deputy director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

For the Saudis, Bahrainis and Emiratis, that “bigger enemy” is Iran, and they would welcome US support for a formal pact against Tehran.

“These Gulf states have wanted this for years,” said Gaub. Therefore, in green-lighting this, “Trump has given Saudi Arabia and its allies what they couldn’t get from Obama.”

Who’s the enemy?

However, other regional states and potential MESA members may not see Iran in quite the same way.

Qatar has grown closer to Iran since the Gulf Crisis isolated it from the “Arab Quartet” – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – while Oman has strong historical ties to Tehran. Along with Kuwait, Oman has also attempted to mediate between the Quartet and Qatar.

Jordan, meanwhile, has taken a generally arms-length approach in the Qatar dispute, while Iraq has many strong ties to Iran and Iranian-supported parties in its government.

Lebanon too has a major pro-Iranian grouping in its political mix – Hezbollah.

At the same time, to qualify as a NATO-style organization, such an alliance would have to be more than just a security guarantee offered by the US.

NATO has an integrated military command structure, a joint headquarters and a raft of training and intelligence-sharing organizations that enable it to act in a unified manner.

With MESA, however, “Who is going to provide the ground forces?” asked Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program director for the International Crisis Group.

“There is very little appetite in the region for such a force, if it means having to make military sacrifices. That would be highly destabilizing to the contributing countries back home.”

It seems unlikely too that the US would be willing to provide the kind of direct military support to MESA that it provides to NATO, particularly in the Trump era.

“The key for the US is its bilateral relations with the countries that would nominally be part of an ‘Arab NATO,’” said Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center, referring to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the other GCC states, Egypt and Jordan.

“An Arab NATO would not replace the bilateral ties that each of these Arab countries has with the US, including Qatar.”

The ghosts of the Baghdad Pact, the UK’s Joint Middle East Command and many other groupings may thus come back to haunt this latest attempt at unity amidst the region’s troubled diversity.

If MESA does go ahead, said Gaub, “it is part of a larger US maneuver against Iran.”

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