Why Doesn’t the Middle East Have a NATO?

January 07, 2020
Story Stream
recent articles

In 2019, The Strategy Bridge announced a writing contest on NATO at 70: The Past, Present, and Future of the Atlantic Alliance. Today, we’re pleased to present the second-place essay.

The perennial American search for stability in the Middle East dates back to anti-Soviet objectives in the early Cold War when Washington treated the region as one piece of an international puzzle to contain Communism. Though the international threat from the Soviets is gone, the search for stability—specifically in the form of a collective security agreement like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—remains highly attractive in the Middle East. NATO helped foster 70 years of economic growth and political cooperation in Europe. In contrast, the Middle East boasts “the most conflict-ridden record in the second half of the twentieth century.”[1]

President Obama initiated recent attempts at collective defense agreements with multiple different proposals.[2] The Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA, is Washington’s latest attempt to form a new regional security arrangement. MESA targets Iranian expansion and hopes to reduce American military and financial commitments while preserving its own strategic interests. The initial goals of the alliance sought to unite the Gulf Arab states with Egypt and Jordan against Iran and its proxies. Cooperation would revolve around missile defense, counterterrorism, military training, and regional trade.[3]

Policymakers should not be optimistic about their goals. Every attempt to increase regional defense cooperation in the Middle East has only achieved minimal success or failed. As a result, the Middle East does not have its own NATO. Scattered throughout the last century are numerous attempts to establish a security arrangement in the region. Some alliances, like the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), followed the NATO model and were backed by western powers. Themes like Arab unity pushed nations closer together in styles ranging from the League of Arab States, a regional forum for independent governments, to the United Arab Republic (UAR) which tried to fulfill popular goals of a unified Arab nation. Various sub-regional organizations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) demonstrate an alternative way forward for military cooperation. Finally, ad hoc military alliances formed during wars against Israel, and ongoing coalitions against groups like the Islamic State, are case studies in current integration. By examining previous and ongoing attempts at regional defense cooperation, two significant and persistent factors appear which cause this near-permanent state of non-cooperation: a lack of trust and divergent goals between Middle Eastern states.

Cooperative Failures in the Middle East

Western Security Alliances: The Baghdad Pact and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)

The CENTO flag and member states (WIkimedia)

The Baghdad Pact emerged from the 1955 Iraq-Turkey Treaty and bound those two states together with Great Britain, Iran, and Pakistan. The Pact emerged at the same time as NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and attempted to surround the Soviet Union with a series of pro-Western military organizations. The idea of three cohesive alliances emerged after U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles returned to Washington from travels in the Middle East and suggested a defensive formation of states stretching across Eurasia to contain communism.[4]

The Pact failed to gain widespread support from Middle Eastern countries and lacked a common identity. It involved the nationalist democracy of Turkey, the Shia kingdom of Iran, the emergent Sunni nation of Pakistan, and the recently de-colonized Iraq. The Saudis distrusted the Hashemite rulers of Iraq, and Egypt opposed any alliance which could be a new extension of European imperialism. Britain’s involvement hurt the organization’s image due to its colonial history and involvement in the Suez Crisis. [5] Washington supported the treaty but would not join it for fear of provoking Israel, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.[6]

The move by Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1959 and a revolution in Iraq in 1958 ended any chance of the Pact emerging into a cohesive defensive entity. The Baghdad Pact became CENTO and moved its offices to Turkey. CENTO never established a standing military headquarters or integrated its armed forces. The organization dragged along until 1979 when Iran withdrew following its own revolution, at which time Pakistan also ceased cooperation.[7]

Regional Forums: The League of Arab States

The League of Arab States, or Arab League, is the Middle East’s longest functioning multilateral organization. The League’s strength originally came from the pan-Arab movement in the mid-19th century amid widespread desire for a united Arab nation.[8] Member states have tried and failed to adopt a military role since its inception.[9] When the Baghdad Pact and CENTO collapsed, the U.S. tried multiple times to engage with the Arab League and expand its security arrangement.[10] Its charter called for military collaboration and the later 1950 Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation mandated that member states defend each other in response to aggression.[11]

The League performed with mixed success throughout the mid-20th century. Kuwait was the League’s only formal military deterrence mission in 1961 when a 33,000-man mostly Egyptian force helped prevent an Iraqi annexation. In 1964, the League announced the formation of a unified Arab military command.[12] 30,000 troops dubbed the ‘Arab Deterrent Force’ deployed to Lebanon during its civil war but failed markedly. The violence continued unabated and Syrian forces occupied portions of Lebanon until 2005.[13] The failure of the League to act in unison during the Iran-Iraq War was perhaps its most consequential failure. Syria and Libya provided support and weapons to Tehran, while the Gulf monarchies and Jordan loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to Baghdad. This division, and the League’s differing views on major issues since, has spurred on the formation of sub-regional, more closely aligned organizations such as the GCC.

The League recently created a response force based in Egypt in 2015 which would be commanded by the Saudis and composed of 40,000 soldiers from different countries.[14] Any Arab nation could request the deployment of the group to help combat terrorism or national security threats. Riyadh agreed to pay the overhead and management costs for the unit while individual states would only be responsible for their members’ normal expenses.[15]

Despite its longevity, the League is widely viewed as a failure due to its inability to resolve conflict or instill cooperation. Research comparing the Arab League to the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for African Unity (OAU) found that the League was the least successful at mediating conflicts.[16] The League’s main challenge was the contradiction between its original goal (pan-Arab unity) and the fierce rivalries between independent young states. Two decades after its inception, the League formally halted efforts to unify the Arab countries, though this formal cessation has not reduced intraregional meddling in other states’ affairs.[17]

State Mergers: United Arab Republic and Arab Federation

Multiple attempts were made in the 20th century to form a single Arab nation-state, the most prominent of which was the United Arab Republic (UAR) effort between Egypt and Syria in 1958. The largest contributing factor to the merger’s failure three years later was not a lack of popular support, but the “domineering prominence of one Arab state [Egypt] over others.”[18] After moving trusted advisors to Syria, Gamel Abd Al-Nasser, the Egyptian President, began removing members of the ruling Baath party from power which fostered resentment. Nasser then removed senior Syrian officers from the military.[19] Syrian political parties were disbanded, and fears spread of Syrian subordination to the Egyptians in their own land. Existing classes like educated and conservative Syrians demanded both a separate currency and economy to sustain their standard of living.[20] A coup by the Syrian military ended the UAR experiment in 1961.

Nasser signing unity pact with Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli, forming the United Arab Republic, February 1958 (Wikimedia)

The Arab Federation formed as a bulwark for Hashemite defense against the populist sentiments driving the union between Egypt and Syria. Jordan, fearing a militarized and antagonistic Syria to its north, proposed a federation with Iraq to strengthen both monarchies. Jordan, like Syria, was the weaker party in the relationship but retained a number of prominent cabinet posts for its officials and both Baghdad and Amman kept their status as national capitals.[21] However, just as the UAR ended in a Syrian military coup in Damascus, the Arab Federation disbanded after an Iraqi military coup in Baghdad. The newly formed revolutionary Iraqi government attempted to form a new union with Damascus and Cairo, but Syrian leadership remained too skeptical of Nasser and the proposal faded away.[22]

Sub-Regional Organizations: The Gulf Cooperation Council

The GCC established itself in 1981 at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War to provide a united defense against Iran. Its loosely aligned military force, dubbed Peninsula Shield, found little success when Qatari and Saudi troops engaged each other in a deadly border clash.[23] The group initially consisted of only 5,000 soldiers.[24] Egypt offered to send an additional 15,000, but the offer proved unnecessary when the war ended.[25] The force remained largely symbolic after the war, and in 1990 it failed to deter Iraq from invading Kuwait.[26] Decades later in 2011, Saudi and UAE troops deployed to Bahrain under the Peninsula Shield banner to support its Sunni rulers against a Shi’a rebellion.[27]

Individual states within the GCC have invested heavily into defense spending. Their militaries operate equipment purchased from numerous countries. Cutting edge missile, intelligence, and communication systems complement their combat assets. Despite their large investments, the GCC has failed to integrate military apparatuses since discussions on the topic began in 1993. The GCC signed a joint defense agreement in 2000 to attempt to build military cooperation.[28] These efforts continued in 2002 and 2003 amid the U.S. invasion of Iraq.[29] In 2005, GCC leadership agreed to grow the force and integrate new weapons to broaden the Peninsula Shield’s capabilities.[30]  

Recent military endeavors have led some observers to believe that the prospect for greater GCC security cooperation is on the horizon. The intervention in Bahrain coincided with the 2011 Libya intervention, the 2012 GCC summit during which the members announced joint naval forces and counterterrorism units, and the 2015 war against the Houthis in Yemen.[31] Each of these recent activities could be viewed as collective defense achievements, but research into organizational success shows “little or no evidence” that the GCC has impacted any resolution in the Gulf in a meaningful way.[32] In fact, cooperation amongst the GCC as an entity has declined in recent years. Ongoing disputes between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, have no apparent resolution. Disagreements are based on two issues: Qatar’s alleged support for political Islam and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and its closer relations to Iran than other states like Saudi Arabia.[33]

Ad Hoc Alliances: Arab Wars vs Israel

The Arab nations and Israel have fought multiple wars, the most significant of which were in 1948, 1967, and 1973. On each occasion, a coalition of Arab states formed, fought, and lost. These coalitions were largely ad hoc and impromptu, existed for a short period of time, and lacked any major integration or coordination.

The formation of Israel in 1948 provoked invasions from its Arab neighbors. The Arab states’ population greatly outnumbered Israel, but they failed to train, equip, and coordinate their forces at an adequate level. In contrast, Israeli units were prepared for war and fielded better-equipped troops than the Arab states.[34] War broke out again in 1967 (The Six-Day War) after military posturing and rising tensions in the Levant. Israel thoroughly destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian militaries, captured large amounts of neighboring territory, and established itself as a dominant military power.[35] The 1967 war was a catastrophe for the Arab states and permanently set back the pan-Arab movement which was already on shaky ground.[36]

In 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel in unison to retake lost territory in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. Like previous conflicts, coordination was poor and led to frequent incidents of friendly fire.[37] The attack caught Israel off-guard. Egypt re-captured portions of the Sinai and the war eventually led to the Camp David accords. This was the closest the Arab nations ever came to achieving outright victory against Israel, but their limited success failed to strengthen regional cooperation or spur on a collective security arrangement. Instead, it led to the opposite. Egypt’s peace treaty with and recognition of Israel as a legitimate state led to major divisions in the Arab world. The main form of Arab-Israeli violence since the treaty has been continued outbreaks of localized conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Current Military Coalitions

The most visible current coalition of Middle Eastern states is the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Saudi and UAE contingents entered Yemen in 2015 to support Sunni groups against the Iranian-backed Houthis who overthrew the government. The war has dragged on for four years and overextended the Gulf militaries. The goals of Saudi and Emirati leaders have diverged as the conflict continues. The UAE primarily supports separatist groups in southern Yemen who control the port city of Aden, and it recently redeployed many soldiers from the country.[38] Besides a lack of support for Saudi objectives, UAE and Saudi militias have occasionally targeted each other. UAE aircraft defended their southern allies against royalist forces to retain their hold on Aden and its proximity to Yemen’s oil fields.[39]

Middle Eastern states have also supported the counter-ISIS campaign with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Bahrain carried out airstrikes in Syria. Jordan conducted strikes, provided training facilities and supported air-combat operations. Qatar provided facilities and overflight permission for U.S. troops, and Saudi Arabia provided training facilities, bases, and bombings in Syria.[40] Middle Eastern states have also supported NATO coalitions in Afghanistan. Turkey has invested in the Afghan mission for years and maintains over 500 troops in the country.[41] The UAE, Qatar, and Jordan have also contributed troops to the Afghanistan coalition.[42]

None of these collective operations are functionally Middle Eastern or Arab. The burden of building the infrastructure necessary for the coalition to operate such as communications systems, orders and plans, intelligence networks, and interoperability standards were conducted by the U.S. or Europe. These operations are more accurately seen as individual national contributions to Western-led coalitions rather than meaningful steps towards a collective security arrangement.

Causes of Cooperative Failure

What Doesn’t Cause Failure

Some common justifications about the lack of security cooperation in the Middle East face strong challenges when compared to NATO. It is worth first examining what arguments are not the reason for non-cooperation before examining plausible explanations.

Ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences in the region date back thousands of years. Many observers point to these differences, and their accentuation during colonialism, as a major cause of ongoing disunity. Some reports on the Arab world, especially during the Arab Spring, forecast the division of existing state structures into ethnically controlled sub-states.[43] But these divisions exist in Western Europe, as well. The nations which later formed NATO were shattered by two World Wars and survived political and economic ruin to become a cohesive, enduring defense organization. Prior to the 20th century, Europe endured the same ethnic, religious, and linguistic feuds which characterized the lands of the Ottoman Empire and caliphates. Current divisive movements like Brexit, independence votes in Catalan, and ongoing secessionist efforts across Europe disrupt this narrative of continental unity.[44] 

Another common answer relies on culture as a defining factor of Arab military non-integration. Some observers credit Arab preferences to hold information tightly and restrict communication as a major detriment to cooperation. As one scholar explains, “Decisions are made and delivered from on high, with very little lateral communication. This leads to a highly centralized system, where authority hardly ever delegates.”[45] This argument, too, finds common ground in modern NATO arrangements. Coalition forces in current war zones like Afghanistan often find themselves beholden to multiple leaders from the coalition military command, their national military command, and their country’s political leadership.[46] Units operating in the same geographic area also often answer to separate command structures.

A third similarity which fails to explain cooperative failure is organizational policies that restrict decisions to unanimous votes. Article 6 of the League of Arab States Charter mandates that group responses to aggression will be decided by a unanimous vote.[47] The clause’s effect is to prioritize national sovereignty and minimize the organization’s ability to act.[48] Some scholars argue that the unanimous voting clause means the League’s agenda “is little more than the lowest common denominator of the desires of its member states.”[49] However, NATO shares the same clause, and all NATO members must vote in unison for military or political action. Consensus drives NATO decision-making, and individual states are not obligated to participate in every NATO mission.

Cause of Failure #1: Lack of Trust

Regime insecurity permeates the Middle East.[50] Trust between governments is rare, and a lack of national identity or acceptance of statehood historically characterized the Arab countries. The results are two-fold: weak national governing establishments, and government-citizen relations “based on coercion, the exhaustion of ideological foundations and varying allegiances beyond centralized institutions.”[51] Most regional institutions and agreements have failed due to an unwillingness of national governments to empower or enforce these arrangements because they did not trust their neighbors. Low levels of regional interdependence on trade and politics foster the status quo.[52]

This lack of trust was a major contributing factor in the failures of Arab alliances against Israel. King Hussein of Jordan, after secret negotiations with Israel, preferred to occupy and secure the West Bank during 1948 rather than continue fighting deeper into Israel.[53] In 1967, Nasser lied to Jordan about the location of the Egyptian Air Force to entice the kingdom to join the war. In 1973, Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, used false operational plans to entice the Syrians into war with Israel.[54] Arab rulers learned from these experiences that they could not rely on other Arab nations for collective goals or trust the information they were sharing.

Pan-Arab unity was a consistent rhetorical device for Arab rulers to boost their own positions, but these words were not sincere requests for cooperation. Instead they served as a “claim...of hegemony, over the other state[s], and, potentially, its people, resources and territory.”[55] For example, unity was the goal of the League of Arab States at the height of pan-Arabism. However, in direct contrast to that mission, the League’s principles undercut trust between states. Its processes were enshrined on the bedrock of individual rulers and their governments respecting the sovereignty of other Arab states. Any deeper partnership could not overcome the fear of larger Arab states dominating their neighbors and the League was left without any effective enforcement mechanisms for action.[56]

Egyptian soldiers in Sana'a during the country's military intervention in Yemen. (Wikimedia)

Unity has often been the justification used by Arab states to intervene in one another’s domestic affairs. While the UAR was struggling to survive, Saudi Arabia invested to gain the loyalty of Syrian Bedouin groups.[57] Throughout the 1960s, Egypt and Saudi Arabia competed for regional supremacy. War broke out in Yemen as the Egyptian Army joined forces with Republican Yemeni troops to bring revolution to the Arabian Peninsula.[58] Kuwait also learned that unity meant occupation by Iraq in 1990. Since then, the sheikhdom has turned to the U.S. for security instead of the GCC. In current conflicts, external actors like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are deeply involved in the Syrian civil war.[59] Egypt, Qatar, and many Gulf states pursue contrasting individual interests in Libya.[60]

Decades of competing territorial claims also reduce trust between Middle Eastern countries. The UAE and Iran feud over multiple islands in the Gulf. Disputes between Qatar and Bahrain lasted for years until The Hague intervened. Iraq’s claims over Kuwait played a role in the 1990 invasion. The UAE and Saudi Arabia both claim territorial waters near Qatar. Algeria and Morocco quarreled over their border in 1963, and Lebanon and Syria contest their border regions today. Even without armed conflict, borders between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, and throughout the Arabian Peninsula have each been redrawn at least once.[61]

Another issue decreasing trust is the different histories experienced by Arab and non-Arab states. Turkey’s 20th century development differed enormously from that of the Arab states and led to diverging views on regional and international relations. Despite the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Turkey emerged as an independent state with a secular national identity. In contrast, the Arab states merely transferred their effective ownership from the Ottoman Empire to the European Empires. Most became mandates under the League of Nations which generated deep and long-lasting anti-Western feelings.

Turkey was viewed with skepticism throughout most of the 20th century by the Arabs. Istanbul’s involvement in NATO, combined with the establishment of the Baghdad Pact under British leadership, led to heightened sentiments against Western imperialism. Instead of pulling away from the West, Turkey drew closer to the United States and Europe to preserve their own integrity from Soviet encroachment. Despite occasional fears that it would cease participation in NATO, it remains in the alliance today.[62]

Arab states have also often viewed Israel and Iran as enemies. Tellingly, the region’s major 20th century wars were the Arab-Israeli Wars and the Iran-Iraq War.[63] Opposition to Israel, particularly with regards to the Palestine issue, dates back over a century. Though later decades witnessed battles between Israel and both its Shia and Sunni neighbors, recent years have brought a warmer relationship between Israel and some of the Arab countries. In the Sinai, Israel cooperates with the Egyptian military to counter insurgent groups.[64] Saudi Arabia and Israel share similar views on Iranian military, paramilitary, and nuclear activities. In fact, Israel, though almost certainly unable to join a group like MESA, appears to favor its creation in order to better coordinate anti-Iranian activities with like-minded partners.[65]

Finally, a lack of military interoperability and trust limits training and operational opportunities to deepen connections between armed forces. Even within largely cohesive groups like the GCC, militaries suffer from disparate funding, training, and equipment systems.[66] Both political and military leaders recognize the issue.[67] As one prominent scholar states, the only true military cooperation in the Gulf is the “de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”[68] Dissimilar weapons systems make this issue worse. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two largest arms purchasers in the region, field a variety of weapons from different exporters. While the U.S. is the main arms supplier for both, they also purchase ballistic missiles from the Ukraine, drones from China, frigates from Spain, and jets from France.[69] Non-interoperable systems elongate repair timelines and reduce military effectiveness.

Saudi Air Forces (SPA)

Cause of Failure #2: Divergent Interests and Beliefs

Numerous observers argue that NATO’s success stems from its status as a political alliance of states with common beliefs. When comparing economic and governance structures, as well as views on human and political rights, the Middle East possesses far greater variance. States like Israel, Tunisia, Turkey, and Lebanon operate as democracies with public elections and dispersed power centers. Others like Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia govern as dynastic monarchies with closely held national authorities. Syria and Egypt follow the Cold War revolutionary model of authoritarian presidencies.

The closest the Arab states came to a shared belief system on which to build long-term cooperation was the Arab nationalist movement following decolonization. Hopes for a pan-Arab union were at their highest, newly independent states were young and fluid, and government leaders spoke a common rhetoric of cohesiveness. Unfortunately, inter-Arab conflict, goals of self-preservation, and political divisiveness prevented this shared belief system from expanding into a meaningful arrangement.[70] The shift of economic power from the Levant to the Gulf since the 1960s has accentuated differences in belief systems. Secular authoritarian rulers supported institutional agreements and organizations to promote their interests (such as the League of Arab States or the UAR). The Gulf monarchies prefer to pursue their goals “by dispensing cash in return for loyalty.”[71]

The most similar group of Middle Eastern states is the GCC. However, even states with close relations and similar identities like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia differ in basic laws on women’s rights and foreign investment. Islam is the largest shared belief system throughout the Middle East, but this religious adherence fails to result in collective action. The Shia majority government in Iraq—a one-time Sunni power center under Baghdad—fosters deep ties to Iran and Iranian groups, and Sunni states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have historically found little in common.[72] Disputes about the role of Islam in politics currently divides Qatar and Turkey from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE.

The most significant common interest which contributed to NATO’s success and longevity was its common enemy. The Cold War was a unifying feature for Western Europe, the U.S., and Canada. In contrast, the Cold War divided the Middle Eastern states and stressed pre-existing antagonisms. Middle Eastern alliances, specifically the Arab countries, never faced an existential threat like Communism in Europe. Instead of one single enemy, the states of the Middle East had many: some feared the U.S. and others feared Moscow, most feared Israel and to some extent Iran, and almost all feared each other. Even for the states who may have cooperated with western-backed arrangements like CENTO, the prevailing tendencies of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism forbid cooperation with former colonial powers.[73] Since it was immune from a history of colonialism, the Soviet Union, rather than being an enemy, became an important ally for many Arabs against adversaries like Israel.[74]

Current efforts to create a new security umbrella under MESA are targeted almost solely at opposing Iran’s activities in the Middle East. The intent is to reduce the U.S. defense burden while continuing to counter Tehran’s ambition. But the potential MESA members do not share the same goals as Washington, and Iran is not the existential threat it is often declared to be. Some Arab states view Iran in a neutral lens. Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar have publicly stated their hesitation to join such an adamantly anti-Iranian alliance. Qatar has also proposed stronger relations between Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.[75] Egypt is pressured to oppose Tehran by Saudi Arabia due to financial investments from the Gulf. Jordan usually sees Israeli expansion, ISIS, and the Syrian refugee crisis as its most pressing concerns.[76] Kuwait and Oman try to remain neutral in the region and “preach and practice engagement with Tehran instead of confrontation.”[77]

Ultimately, whether addressing Iran or some other concern, Middle Eastern states have rarely found substantial benefits in long-term arrangements. Most rulers decided their interests—political, religious, economic, or military—could be better met through temporary arrangements without potentially unsatisfactory obligations in the future.[78] With a shortfall of will to make regional cooperation work, Middle Eastern states have most often found their security needs met and individual goals pursued by aligning with powers outside the region like the U.S.[79]

Saudi armor units participating in ARAB SHIELD 1. (SPA)

Finding Common Ground

Three basic tenets of NATO could be applicable for Middle Eastern collective security. A persistent empowered joint command structure could establish a sense of permanence in the security relationships between states. Standardizing training and education programs would increase interoperability between forces and make cooperation independent of a U.S. or international command structure a realistic objective. Regular joint military exercises could create a common culture of co-dependency and communication between armed forces capable of surviving political disputes.[80] Riyadh and Cairo conducted military exercises in Egypt in October 2018 for both ground and air forces. A month later, the two nations were joined by the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan to conduct ARAB SHIELD 1.[81] A few drills is not an enduring regional security apparatus, but continuation of these exercises could facilitate deeper integration.

Another area for limited improvement is maritime security. Much of the Middle East depends on freedom of movement through the Bab El Mandeb and Straits of Hormuz for economic viability. The Straits of Hormuz often overshadows the nearby Bab El Mandeb, but the Red Sea is also vital to regional and international trade and lacks a security framework.[82] Pirates, terrorist groups, and Iran all threaten this region, and external nations like the U.S. appear willing to empower local actors.[83] Middle Eastern states could expand their role in existing structures such as the Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain and embrace this effort.[84]

Another positive step forward for Gulf Arab states would be the integration of missile and air defense systems due to the growing threat from Iranian and Iranian-aligned groups and their short-range ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.[85] The UAE and Saudi Arabia have made some progress working with the White House on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) technologies, but far more can be done towards establishing a peninsula-wide integrated system.[86]

Rethinking the Middle East Security Framework

Perhaps a reconsideration of the framework which policymakers employ in the Middle East is necessary. Most recent attempts at alliances have focused on uniting the Gulf and Arab states against Iran. Economically and militarily, though, Iran is far weaker than its Gulf neighbors. Estimates of annual defense spending in the GCC range from $95 to $128 billion, compared to $15 to $16 billion for Iran.[87] Arms transfers to the GCC outnumber Iran 124 to 1.[88] Though Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are improving, most of its conventional systems are “obsolete, obsolescent, or of relatively low quality.”[89] Iran does not pose the neighboring conventional military threat that the USSR did in Europe. Without a common threat, any potential alliance must find some other common goal or belief on which to base its existence. A framework for collective security may find more success by shifting to examine how already powerful states can control a rogue neighbor and encourage acceptable behavior.

Finally, one critical ingredient may be required to establish a functioning collective security arrangement in the Middle East: the United States. The most important single factor to NATO’s success in the Cold War was the dedication and contributions by the U.S. in political capital, money, technology, military assets, and diplomacy. Canada, the United Kingdom, or any other member of the alliance could not replace the superpower status of America. Washington's goal of stabilizing the Middle East by creating a pro-American security alliance while significantly reducing its commitments presents a grim dilemma. It will likely prove impossible.

Christian H. Heller is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and holds a Masters of Philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. He is currently serving as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics, and Ideology (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2005), 173

[2] Andrew Miller and Richard Sokolsky, “Arab NATO: An Idea Whose Time Has Not (And May Never) Come”, 21 August 2018, Accessed at https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/08/21/arab-nato-idea-whose-time-has-not-and-may-never-come-pub-77086

[3] Yara Bayoumy, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, “Trump seeks to revive ‘Arab NATO’ to confront Iran”, Reuters,  27 July 2018, Accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-gulf-alliance/trump-seeks-to-revive-arab-nato-to-confront-iran-idUSKBN1KH2IK

[4] “Editorial Note,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Near East Region; Iran; Iraq, Volume XII, Department of State Office of the Historian, Accessed at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1955-57v12/d1

[5] Fawcett, “Alliances and Regionalism in the Middle East”, in Louise Fawcett (ed), International Relations of the Middle East, 3d Ed. (Oxford University Press: Oxford) Kindle Edition, 193

[6] Umut Uzer and Ayse Uzer, “Diverging Perceptions of the Cold War: Baghdad Pact as a Source of Conflict Between Turkey and the Nationalist Arab Countries,” The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations, Vol XXXVI, Accessed at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8520/3a28d67c27602ed0873c95de37b9aafe5608.pdf, 112

[7] “The Baghdad Pact (1955) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)”, U.S. Department of State, Accessed at https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/lw/98683.htm

[8] Marco Pinfari, “Nothing but Failure? The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council as Mediators in Middle Eastern Conflict”, London School of Economics and Political Science, March 2009, Accessed at http://www.lse.ac.uk/international-development/Assets/Documents/PDFs/csrc-working-papers-phase-two/wp45.2-nothing-but-failure.pdf, 2

[9] Pinfari, 1

[10] Yoel Guzanky and Kobi Michael, “Establishing an Arab NATO: Vision versus Reality”, The Institute for National Security Studies, 15 November 2018, Accessed at https://www.inss.org.il/publication/establishing-arab-nato-vision-versus-reality/

[11] “Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation Between the States of the Arab League, June 17, 1950”, , Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School, Accessed at https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/arabjoin.asp

[12] Florence Gaub, “An Arab NATO In the Making? Middle Eastern Military Cooperation Since 2011”, Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, September 2016, 2-3

[13] Gaub, 3

[14] James Stavridis, “The Arab NATO”, Foreign Policy, 9 April 2015, Accessed at https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/09/the-arab-nato-saudi-arabia-iraq-yemen-iran/

[15] Awad Mustafa, “Arab League Sets New Defense Force at 40,000”, Defense News, 1 April 2015, Accessed at https://www.defensenews.com/home/2015/04/01/arab-league-sets-new-defense-force-at-40000/

[16] Pinfari, 6

[17] Gaub, xiii

[18] Brody McDonald, “Arab Identity, Nationalism, and Fragmentation: Uprisings in the Contemporary Middle East,” 8

[19] Michael Habib, “Pan-Arabism and the United Arab Republic”, Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University, May 2016, Accessed at https://fau.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fau%3A33785/datastream/OBJ/view/Pan-Arabism_and_the_United_Arab_Republic.pdf, 48-50

[20] Maqbool Ahmad Awan, “Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism and Formation of the United Arab Republic: An Appraisal,”, Accessed at http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/HistoryPStudies/PDF_Files/8_V-30-No1-Jun17.pdf, 121

[21] Juan Romero, “Arab Nationalism and the Arab Union of 1958”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 42, 28 January 2015, Accessed at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13530194.2014.994317

[22] Ernest Tucker, The Middle East in Modern World History (Pearson, 2013), 221-223

[23] https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/10/06/a-new-arab-military-alliance-has-dim-prospects

[24] Gaub, 4

[25] Jean-Loup Samaan, “Toward a NATO Of the Gulf? The Challenges of Collective Defense Within the GCC?,” 9

[26] Pinfari, 8

[27] Guzanky and Michael

[28] Samaan, 9

[29] Zafer Muhammad Alajmi, “Gulf Military Cooperation: Tangible Gains or Limited Results?,” Aljazeera Centre for Studies, March 2015, Accessed at http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/dossiers/2015/03/201533164429153675.html

[30] Alajmi

[31] Samaan, xi-3

[32] Pinfari, 2

[33] Zeina Azzam and Imad K. Harb (Ed.), “The GCC Crisis at One Year,”, Arab Center Washington DC, 2018, Accessed at http://arabcenterdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-GCC-Crisis-at-One-Year.pdf, 7-24

[34] Christian H. Heller, “Weakness Into Strength: Overcoming Strategic Deficits in the 1948 Israeli War for Independence,” Strategy Bridge, 24 September 2018, Accessed at https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/9/24/weakness-into-strength-overcoming-strategic-deficits-in-the-1948-israeli-war-for-independence

[35] Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Primer,” Middle East Research and Information Project, Accessed at https://web.stanford.edu/group/sper/images/Palestine-Israel_Primer_MERIP.pdf, 7

[36] Habib, 55-56

[37] Gaub, 5

[38] Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous, “Saudi Arabia struggles to hold Yemen coalition together as allies face off,” Reuters, 2 September 2019, Accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-explainer/saudi-arabia-struggles-to-hold-yemen-coalition-together-as-allies-face-off-idUSKCN1VN0Y9

[39] Maggie Michael, “Cracks in Saudi-UAE coalition risk new war in Yemen,” Associated Press, 6 September 2019, Accessed at https://www.apnews.com/b1eb5228527043059e40220834cc4b0d

[40] Kathleen J. McInnis, “Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State,” Congressional Research Service, 24 August 2016, Accessed at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44135.pdf

[41] “Resolute Support Mission (RSM): Key Facts and Figures”, NATO, June 2019, Accessed at https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2019_06/20190625_2019-06-RSM-Placemat.pdf

[42] “NATO and Afghanistan”, NATO, 5 March 2019, Accessed at https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_8189.htm

[43] McDonald, 1-6

[44] Jon Henley, Finbarr Sheehy, Glenn Swann, and Chris Fenn, “Beyond Catalonia: pro-independence movements in Europe,” The Guardian, 27 October 2017, Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/oct/27/beyond-catalonia-pro-independence-movements-in-europe-map

[45] Norvel B. De Atkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” Middle East Quarterly, December 1999, 4-7

[46] Kathleen J. McInnis, “The Many Challenges of Building an International Military Coalition,” Defense One, 28 August 2013, Accessed at https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2013/08/many-challenges-building-international-military-coalition/69575/

[47] Pinfari, 3

[48] Jonathan Masters and Mohammed Aly Sergie, “The Arab League”, Council on Foreign Relations, 21 October 2014, Accessed at https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/arab-league

[49] Pinfari, 6

[50] Fawcett, 186

[51] Wolfgang Muhlberger, “The State of Arab Statehood. Reflections on Failure, Resilience and Collapse,” European Institute of the Mediterranean, Accessed at https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/194594/EuroMeSCo26.pdf, 10

[52] Fawcett, 189

[53] Heller, “Weakness”

[54] Atkine, 10

[55] Halliday, 62-65

[56] Fawcett, 193

[57] Tucker, 221

[58] Alex de Waal, “Pax Africana or Middle East Security Alliance in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea?,” World Peace Foundation, January 2019, 4

[59] Yehuda U. Blanga, “Saudi Arabia’s Motives in the Syrian Civil War,” Middle East Policy Council, Volume XXIV, No. 4, Winter 2017, Accessed at https://www.mepc.org/journal/saudi-arabias-motives-syrian-civil-war

[60] Tarek Megerisi, “Libya’s global civil war,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 26 June 2019, Accessed at https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/libyas_global_civil_war1

[61] Raffaella A. Del Sarto, International Affairs 93: 4, 2017, 772

[62] Halliday, 107-109

[63] Ibid., 178-179

[64] Christian H. Heller, “The Sinai Insurgency: The Next ISIS Crisis?” Small Wars Journal, 30 August 2018, Accessed at https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/sinai-insurgency-next-isis-crisis

[65] “Towards an Arab NATO?,” Finabel European Army Interoperability Center, 4

[66] Anthony H. Cordesman, “Gulf Security: Looking Beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 December 2017, 3

[67] Samaan, 10-11

[68] Cordesman, “Gulf Security”, 3

[69] James Reinl, “Arms sales to Middle East have increased dramatically, new research shows,” Middle East Eye, 10 March 2019, Accessed at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/arms-sales-middle-east-have-increased-dramatically-new-research-shows

[70] McDonald, 8

[71] de Waal, 10

[72] Geneive Abdo, “Iran and the United States Battle It Out in Iraq,” Foreign Policy, 8 July 2019, Accessed at https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/07/08/iran-and-the-united-states-battle-it-out-in-iraq/

[73] Uzer and Uzer, 113

[74] Ibid., 102

[75] Alireza Ahmadi, “Here Is Why an Arab NATO Is Unlikely,” The National Interest, 19 December 2018, Accessed at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/middle-east-watch/here-why-arab-nato-unlikely-39217

[76] Giorgio Cafiero and Cinzia Bianco, “Arab Shield 1: The Birth of an Arab NATO?”, Middle East Institute, 13 November 2018, Accessed at https://www.mei.edu/publications/arab-shield-1-birth-arab-nato

[77] Yasmine Farouk, “The Middle East Strategic Alliance Has a Long Way to G”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 February 2019, Accessed at https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/02/08/middle-east-strategic-alliance

[78] Fawcett, 194

[79] Ibid., 201

[80] Samaan, 4-6

[81] Res Shaul, “The US ‘Middle East Strategic Alliance’ – the ‘Arab NATO’,” Research Institute for European and American Studies, February 2019, Accessed at http://www.rieas.gr/images/editorial/shaulmesa9.pdf, 1-2

[82] de Waal, 1-4

[83] Finabel, 5

[84] “About Combined Maritime Forces”, Accessed at https://combinedmaritimeforces.com/about/

[85] “Saudi Arabia oil attacks: Weapons debris ‘proves Iran behind them’,” BBC, 18 September 2019, Accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49746645

[86] Ari Kattan, “GCC Missile Defense: Obstacles on the Road to Integration”, Missile Defense, Extended Deterrence, and Nonproliferation in the 21st Century, Accessed at https://spp.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2019-07/Paper%206%20-%20GCC%20Missile%20Defense-%20Obstacles%20on%20the%20Road%20to%20Integration%20.pdf

[87] Anthony H. Cordesman and Nicholas Harrington, “The Arab Gulf States and Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 December 2018, Accessed at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs public/publication/181212_Iran_GCC_Balance.Report.pdf, 4

[88] Ibid., 7

[89] Ibid., 13

Show comments Hide Comments