Talks over an alleged Middle East alliance, dubbed the ‘Arab NATO’, have been dominating headlines ahead of US President Joe Biden’s tour to the region.
The rumoured presence of a member state neither belonging to the Arab nations nor the Gulf is raising eyebrows —Israel. This is despite the refusal of various countries in the GCC, namely Qatar and Kuwait, to normalise with the occupying state.
Under the reported alliance, Israel, the only nuclear power in the region, would help the other members deter perceived threats by Iran—which has been accused by Tel Aviv of developing a nuclear weapon.
“The question is not so much whether the alliance will be created, but whether the alliance only will exist on paper or whether it will exist in reality as well,” Dr. Trita Parsi, Executive Vice Presiddent at the Quincy Institute, told Doha News.
Scheduled between 13-16 July, Biden’s visit has already raised numerous expectations regarding a possible regional shift, particularly with Israel being at the top of his itinerary.
After visiting Tel Aviv, Biden is reportedly heading to Saudi Arabia – onboard a first of its kind direct flight from Israel – for a GCC+3 meeting, which brings Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt together with the Gulf leaders.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is also expected to attend.
As of yet, yhere have been no publicly disclosed visits by Biden to Doha, the host of the region’s largest American military base and the newly-designated major non-NATO ally (MNNA).
The White House has said that “deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security” will feature on the agenda.
In a Washington Post op-ed published a week ahead of the visit, Biden wrote that he will “pursue diplomacy intensely” in a bid to avoid instability.
He also accused his predecessor Donald Trump of causing regional instability, saying he contributed to the war in Yemen, failed to tackle attacks against the US embassy in Iraq, while “isolating the US” by abandoning the 2015 nuclear accord.
“My administration will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal, as I remain prepared to do,” said Biden, while making no mention of an Arab alliance against Tehran.
Responding to the reports, Iran slammed the US’ for its attempts to establishing the alliance, describing it as a continuation of Washington’s “Iranophobia“.
“The proposal of this issue is provocative and the Islamic republic of Iran views these remarks as a threat to national and regional security,” said Iran’s newly-appointed Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanani on Saturday.
Kanani added that the move would “have no result other than weakening common regional security and serving the security interests of the Zionist regime”.
Downplayed by officials
In what is seen to be the first public comment made by a senior official from the yet-to-materialise bloc’s members, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said he would be in favour of the alliance.
“I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO,” the Jordanian king told CNBC last month, noting that the vision of the alliance should be defined by its members.
Speculations were further amplified when the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) revealed that military officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Israel and Egypt met in Sharm El Sheikh in March.
Citing US and regional officials, the American news outlet claimed the alleged meeting aimed at discussing ways for the participants to join forces in facing Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.
Doha News reached out to officials in Qatar for a comment on the Gulf state’s reported participation in the meeting and has yet to receive a response.
Despite Doha not commenting on the alleged meeting, the Gulf state has been highlighted through numerous occasions in which Qatari officials have staunchly refused and opposed normalisation with Israel.
Analyst say this, as well as the mere presence of Israel in the bloc, casts doubts on it taking shape.
“Qatar will not create a security partnership with the Israelis as long as the Palestinians issue is not being resolved,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London.
The UAE was the only nation to comment on the meeting, stating that it is not part of any regional military alliance nor cooperation aimed at targeting a specific country. It added that it is unaware of official negotiations over a regional alliance.
Days later, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi denied the presence of talks over an alliance involving Israel, noting that the matter is not on Biden’s agenda. The Hashemite Kingdom was the second in the Arab world to establish ties with Israel in 1994, after Egypt in 1979.
During his brief Doha visit last month, Safadi told Al Jazeera that the claims were regarding questions raised to King Abdullah in the CNBC interview.
But speculations over the new bloc were raised days before the interview, in a report where Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, claimed an air-defence alliance with the US and Middle East partners that aims to thwart Iranian attacks is ‘already in action’.
While the minister did not name the regional partners, analysts have pointed towards countries that have already normalised ties with Tel Aviv as likely culprits.
The “elusive quest”
Even prior to the latest reports and floating statements, the concept of an alliance has existed for years though it has never materialised.
“This NATO proposal overall is not a new concept brought up by the US, it has been something that was pursued but turned out to be an elusive quest,” Dr. Dania Thafer, Executive Director of Gulf International Forum, told Doha News.
Trump had promoted a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), proposed by Saudi Arabia, in 2017, shortly before the GCC crisis. The alliance was also seen as an attempt to counter perceived threats to the region by Iran and its proxies.
MESA was another part of Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric, which was further highlighted when he unilaterally withdrew Washington from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018.
Dubbed as an ‘Arab NATO’, the countries that were supposed to be in the bloc included Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain,Oman, Jordan, and Egypt – without the involvement of Israel.
While the alliance at the time was proposed when the GCC was caught up in its own major diplomatic feud, the potential members already had their doubts about it.
In 2019, Egypt withdrew from MESA, with sources privy to the matter citing doubts to Reuters on the US’ ability to maintain the alliance in the event that Trump was not reelected.
Mohammad Ali Shabani, Editor at Amwaj Media, told Doha News that the resurfacing of the proposed bloc, with the inclusion of Israel could be an extension of Trump’s attempts of pushing for the complete normalisation of Arab states with Tel Aviv.
“Biden is pursuing a foreign policy victory in the absence of any deal with Iran, and the apparent route his team has opted for is to pursue Trump’s path on Arab-Israeli normalisation,” said Shabani.
While considering an alliance requires a joint mission to combat a common threat, the Arab NATO appeared to be a far-fetched concept given that there is a clear split in the Gulf region’s stance vis-a-vis Iran.
“I don’t think the alliance will happen, especially if the alliance is pitched as a way to better contain Iran – this was one of the issues that divided the Middle East Strategic Alliance in 2018 and 2019,” Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Doha News.
The split was further amplified following the signing of the Al Ula Declaration on 5 January 2021 by the GCC and Egypt. Under the historic accord, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt agreed to resolve the 2017 GCC crisis by lifting the illegal blockade they had imposed on Qatar.
At the time of the region’s worst feud, the quartet demanded that Qatar severs ties with Iran if it wanted the blockade imposed by its neighbours to be lifted.
Instead, Doha and Tehran’s ties witnessed significant growth, particularly with the Gulf state hosting talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA, with reports now suggesting a new round will likely commence in Doha following Biden’s visit.
“Qatar is likely under a lot of pressure from Washington to join such an alliance, but the government in Doha is likely also very well aware of the risks it carries, mindful of the constructive relations they currently enjoy with Tehran,” said Dr. Parsi.
Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ties have also appeared to warm, though with cautious optimism, with the two states holding four rounds of talks last year, as well as recent statements of a fifth.
While the discussions took place, their results remain in question given the proxy war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. As of now, Yemen is witnessing a ceasefire that has brought relative calm to the war-torn naiton.
Outside of the GCC, Iraq is hosting mediation talks between Jordan and Iran, and another between Egypt and Iran, marking a possible regional shift. Recent reports stated that Egypt and Iran have also reached an agreement to develop their ties.
Experts believe that an anti-Iran alliance would not work in the region’s favour, even if they see Iran as a direct threat.
“An alliance against Iran is poised to significantly increase tensions with that country, and while this is something the Israelis welcome, many of the other countries have their tensions with Iran but are not necessarily looking to make conflict inevitable,” said Dr. Parsi.
It is worth noting that military partnerships in the region do exist, such as the GCC’s Joint Peninsula Shield Force, established in 1982 to enable the bloc to counter attacks targeting its territories.
The force carries out joint drills between all six members of the Gulf bloc, which continued even during the region’s worst diplomatic crisis between 2017-2021.
“We see that after 40 years in the GCC of trying to integrate and build a military alliance among the six very homogenous, fairly similar states it has not worked to actually build a robust military alliance,” said Dr. Krieg.
He added that including other countries and potentially Israel would “undermine the mission statement of any such alliance.”
Analysts also believe that the alliance would not work in the US’ favour given its withdrawal from the region.
“The conversations the Americans are having at the moment are about a fairly limited security pack […] we shouldn’t forget the Americans themselves do not have an interest in building a security arrangement in which they could be dragged back into the region if any of those members are attacked,” said Dr. Krieg.
The US has suffered great losses particularly in its Iraq invasion, which was launched over claims of weapons of mass destruction that investigations later ruled as baseless.
Between 2003 and 2011, the US lost at least $800 billion from its treasury and 4,500 were killed, per data shared by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Other reports found that Washington lost $1.7 trillion in addition to $490 billion in benefits it owed to war veterans.
Iraqis paid a greater price, suffering inhumane torture at the hands of the US, which has not been held accountable for human rights violations in Iraq, to date.
In his Washington Post piece, Biden himself seemed wary of being involved in the region. He stated that he is proud of being the first US president to visit a Middle East free from American troops engaging in combat missions, noting that he aims “to keep it that way”.
“Throughout my journey, I’ll have in mind the millions of Americans who served in the region, including my son Beau, and the 7,054 who died in conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001,” he said.
The idea of an alliance involving Israel, Qatar and Kuwait seems far from possible given the two Gulf countries’ refusal to normalise with the apartheid state.
Unlike their neighbours Bahrain and the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have not signed the Abraham Accord, the controversial agreement that saw the beginning of diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv – breaking decades of Gulf consensus.
Qatar and Kuwait have repeatedly issued strong statements on various occasions condemning the Zionist state’s ongoing crimes against Palestinians while stressing their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
The initiative was adopted by the GCC and stipulates that member states shall refrain from normalising with Israel until it fully withdraws from lands occupied in 1967.
Even after the lifting of the blockade on Qatar, the Gulf state stressed that the Abraham Accord is a sovereign decision and said it would not follow in the footsteps of its neighbours.
While Saudi Arabia did not join the Abraham Accords, reports suggest a possible step towards normalisation during Biden’s trip. Flying directly from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, Biden himself alluded to this being a historic moment for Arab-Israeli relations
Dr. Krieg believes that Biden will be looking into a careful dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which he said would be a “great achievement” by the US administration.
“Even the Saudis don’t want normalisation at this point, there are certain steps in the roadmap that would have to be met, such as meaningful progress by Israel towards the Palestininan question and Arab Peace initiative,” said Dr. Krieg.
While the outcomes of the GCC+3 meeting cannot be easily determined until the meeting takes place, Dr. Krieg believes that the US is pushing for an announcement of some sort.
“The [Biden] administration is very desperate to announce something at the summit in Jeddah. So anything that the Biden administration will come up with and announce will have to be watered down to include a common denominator with all these different countries,” said Dr. Krieg.
He added that what would come out of the meeting is a “carefully worded partnership” by the US to not get into a direct military confrontation with Iran.
Echoing similar thoughts, Dr. Ulrichsen said that the Biden administration is struggling to define its purpose in the Middle East visit.
“[Biden] therefore risks being seen to be coming home empty handed if, for example, Israel and Saudi Arabia do not normalise relations and if there is no meaningful shift in Saudi oil production or in the price of oil,” said Dr. Ulrichsen.
https://dohanews.co/middle-east-nato-will-the-us-elusive-quest-of-an-alliance-become-a-reality/ Middle East NATO: will the US’ ‘elusive quest’ of an alliance become a reality? – Doha News