The United States has announced plans to hold a summit in January to launch what’s being called an Arab NATO, officially the Middle East Strategic Alliance. On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held preliminary talks with the other main countries involved – namely, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Jordan – to discuss the summit. The idea has been batted around before, but for the first time, the U.S. president is planning to preside over a meeting intended to discuss its creation. The story didn’t receive much coverage last week, with other stories monopolizing the press, but in other times, it would have dominated the news.
In the past, the idea of an Arab NATO was motivated by a desire to unite Arab nations against jihadists. Political realities delayed its creation, but this time around, it’s being motivated by the expansion of Iranian influence, which poses an existential threat to Arab states. Iran already has a dominant position in Iraq, substantial influence in Syria and Lebanon, and is supporting Shiites fighting in Yemen. And though its economy is under extreme pressure, particularly with the addition of U.S. sanctions, Iran would become a more direct threat to Arab regimes, if only it could consolidate its position. Iran’s interest in the Arab world is to guarantee its own security and, as important, to gain control of Persian Gulf and Arab oil. It’s a distant threat, but distant threats should be addressed early rather than later. Hence the meeting between the leaders of the future Arab NATO.
In creating the invitation list, however, the summit hit its first snag. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply hostile to Qatar. Qatar is close to Iran geographically and in policy. Given the direction the winds are blowing, cozying up to Iran was prudent. For the Saudis and the UAE, it was a betrayal. This and undoubtedly other less visible issues triggered a diplomatic crisis last year, when a Saudi-led group formed a blockade against Qatar. The U.S. position seems to be that including Qatar – which hosts U.S. bases – would protect Doha and shift it away from Iran.
This is one of the virtues of an Arab NATO. It would bring Arab nations together and lock them into place, just as NATO did in Europe. It would start as a defensive platform, providing military, economic and political support to limit Iranian influence. Later, it could take on an offensive role, reversing Iranian gains in the region.
There are several questions still unanswered. Would the alliance include a collective defense clause, similar to NATO’s Article 5, stating that if one member is attacked, all the others must take action? Would the United States make such a commitment? Would it have a command structure with forces from each country committed to war plans, as NATO does?
It also poses some strategic questions. If this alliance actually works, then the Arabs go from being a divided and mutually hostile people to a united and potentially powerful entity. There’s a very real chance this could threaten both Turkey and Israel. Since both countries have large militaries, this could wind up, in the worst case, as an Arab power surrounded by non-Arab powers (Israel, Turkey and Iran). That would make quite a battle.
I am likely looking too far in the future of an organization that doesn’t yet exist and is still struggling over what to do with Qatar. It is hard to imagine an Arab alliance that can cohere as a military giant. But in geopolitics, imagination is a more powerful tool than common sense, since history constantly confounds common sense. The likelihood of this alliance surviving and growing powerful is small, but it is not impossible. If it happens, it could change the region, threaten other powers, and generate conflict.