Four Key Questions About an 'Arab NATO'
In July, U.S. President Donald Trump made waves in Brussels by suggesting that the U.S. might “do [its] own thing” if NATO Alliance members don’t meet defense spending commitments. He left NATO leaders with “whiplash” by alternately berating and praising them. The U.S. defense establishment has worked hard to reassure allies about the American commitment to the Alliance even as the president’s comments sow uncertainty.
On the surface, then, recent reports that the U.S. is working with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and other partners to establish an “Arab NATO” might seem surprising, given Trump’s apparent contempt for the original item.
But concepts very similar to the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), as Arab NATO would be known officially, have been bandied about by previous U.S. administrations as counterbalances to Iran and to decrease U.S. security commitments. In the past, the Arab NATO concept faced stumbling blocks based on the capabilities of potential member militaries, as well as the unwillingness of involved states to work toward greater military interoperability or intelligence sharing. Many of these problems remain, and political fractiousness, especially in the Gulf, poses a major hurdle for any potential military bloc.
With these thoughts in mind, here are several key questions that the MESA states (the GCC, Egypt, and Jordan) and Trump administration will likely need to answer.
At a glance, there isn’t much that appears to distinguish MESA from previous attempts to unify some of the Arab states against the threat from Iran.
Given their comparatively stable politics position in Iran’s shadow, the GCC states have long drawn U.S. policymakers’ gazes as the foundation of a counterbalance to Tehran. In 2012, the Obama administration launched the U.S.-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum, a foreign-defense ministerial intended to encourage collective action on regional security issues on the part of the Gulf states with U.S. support. It tried to build on the forum in 2015 and 2016 with U.S.-GCC summits at Camp David and in Riyadh, resulting in joint working groups on missile defense, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, illicit finance, and maritime security, among other areas.
But the revelation of the U.S.’s secret nuclear negotiations with Iran created mistrust with Gulf partners and limited the impact of the working groups. Obama faced difficulty attracting leaders to the summit given the nuclear talks and his public comments about the Gulf states and Iran sharing the region; GCC heads of state sent deputies in their places.
These past efforts to build a counter-Iran alliance, or even improve Gulf military and intelligence coordination, failed due to a lack of urgency and unity within the GCC and, eventually, mistrust of U.S. intentions toward Iran. The GCC is not a political monolith, and its members have different approaches to and relations with Iran. If MESA is to succeed, its backers will be counting on a couple of new dynamics.
One factor is the apparent impetus from the region. Saudi leadership proposed the idea of a security pact to counter Iran when Trump visited Riyadh last year. While the U.S. hasn’t provided an ironclad security commitment should Iran attack Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states, the Saudis and Emiratis view the Iranian threat as compelling enough to take action themselves, and the Trump administration appears willing to help them.
New leadership is another factor that could make a major difference. From the outset, the Trump administration has focused on Iran’s destabilizing regional role and the inadequacy of the JCPOA. Secretary Mattis’ positions on the Islamic Republic’s role in the region align more closely with the potential MESA members, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears intent on securing Saudi military leadership in the Gulf. Despite differences in their Yemen policies, Saudi and the UAE remain closely aligned in their Iran concerns and appear willing to try to take their GCC allies with them.
Closer alignment between the U.S. and Gulf partners may increase the potential for this proposed alliance to get off the ground, but MESA members still face significant political hurdles to military cooperation.
How will the alliance navigate political hurdles?
One of the most blatant potential stumbling blocks to progress toward MESA is the Gulf crisis, which has torn the GCC asunder. The crisis began in May 2017, when fake news about Qatar’s emir precipitated a total blockade of the peninsular state by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, along with Egypt. The 2017 developments marked an escalation of longstanding tensions over Qatar’s foreign policy, including its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and warmer relations with Iran.
Qatar and its blockaders appear at a deadlock in normalizing relations - Saudi Arabia was rumored to be considering building a moat to separate Qatar from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, and Qatar has taken the UAE to international courts over the blockade. Committing to MESA could certainly go a long way toward repairing Qatar’s relations with its neighbors, but it’s difficult to imagine any near-term possibility for cooperation.
Qatar’s differences with the Saudis and Emiratis are a more extreme example of the political differences that have impeded the GCC security coordination. Although Bahrain traditionally cooperates with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and especially Oman take less bellicose political stances toward Iran for reasons of geography and history. Even Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been slow to coordinate on joint command centers for counterterrorism and other issues.
In military terms, political differences have translated into a reticence to share sensitive details on capabilities and intelligence necessary to work toward goals like integrated missile defense. Iran’s ballistic missile program is one of its primary threats to the Gulf, and integrating the GCC’s various U.S.-made missile defense systems requires sensors and other technologies to be placed in one country for the benefit of all; otherwise, there are gaps in the system, rendering it ineffective without GCC-wide buy-in.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s willingness to blockade Qatar for its divergent policies may spook Kuwait into falling in line with their broad policy goals, though Oman has been especially vocal in the past about avoiding shared military commitments like MESA. Clearing such political hurdles will be critical if the alliance is to break new ground.
What’s Israel’s stance?
Improved Gulf-Israel relations due to shared Iran concerns have been one of the most significant regional political developments over the last decade or so; Israel has workable, if not necessarily cordial, political and security relations with Jordan and Egypt. It’s close to unthinkable to imagine that the Trump administration would try to advance an Arab alliance along Israel’s eastern and southern borders without consulting Jerusalem, warmer relations or no. Washington still maintains the Qualitative Military Edge (QME) policy, which ensures the U.S. conduct regional weapons sales that threaten Israel’s military superiority.
Better behind-the-scenes ties between Israel and especially the Gulf states have made the prospect of an Arab alliance that puts Iran in the crosshairs viable, but formal participation in a potential pact is still a bridge too far. The administration and its Arab partners have discussed that Israel could quietly cooperate with MESA via coordination with the U.S., and the Saudis and Emiratis seem willing to combine intelligence capabilities. But recent controversy in Saudi over linkages between MBS and the Trump administration’s alleged peace plan have exposed the limits of Arab-Israeli cooperation. The U.S. will play an important role in ensuring that diplomatic backchannels remain open between the alliance members and Israel.
Will there be an Article 5?
One of the cornerstones of the NATO Alliance is its collective defense clause, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 5 codifies allies’ commitment that an attack on one member “shall be considered an attack against them all,” and that member states will work together or individually to aid the attacked by “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” There is flexibility as to whether Article 5 requires every member of the alliance to participate in a collective response to adversary action, but, in practical terms, a coalition of willing member states would likely undertake a response. Article 5 was only invoked once, on behalf of the U.S. after September 11, 2001.
Article 5’s utility lies in its value as a deterrent. NATO can bring to bear the military might of the U.S. and most of Europe to threaten Russia, or other adversaries, with consequences that make the prospect of state conflict catastrophic. That Article 5 has only ever been invoked once is a testament to its power as a conventional deterrent.
An Article 5-style commitment looks trickier in the realm of unconventional or substate conflict, however. Russia’s use of “little green men” in Ukraine in 2014, its chemical-grade weapon assassinations on UK sovereign territory in 2018, and its cyber tactics make the parameters for escalation and triggering a collective response murkier. Given the spectrum of adversarial activities from conventional to hybrid action, NATO is now beginning to consider more seriously the applicability of Article 5 to “below-threshold” scenarios.
Iran thrives in this realm. Its support for proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthis, and various Iraqi militias allows it to advance its interests and regional policies while maintaining plausible deniability among the international community. Iran has proven itself largely capable of outmaneuvering its regional adversaries in this space, and debates in the West over the extent to which it exercises control over partners or proxies distract from the reality of its support for them.
Therefore, the main questions around a potential MESA Article 5 include: would all members be obligated to respond? What type of action by Iran would trigger a collective response? How closely or directly would a proxy or partner need to be linked to Tehran to elicit action, and who determines the clarity of patronage linkages?
At the moment, MESA raises more questions than obvious answers for addressing the region’s political and security challenges.
Owen Daniels is an associate director with the Middle East Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is also an Assistant Managing Editor of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Fellowship Program. Follow him on Twitter: @OJDaniels.