“Arab NATO” Explodes on Takeoff
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the majority of geopolitical analysts that the Trump administration has been promoting the idea of a Middle Eastern military alliance rather aggressively. The so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) that is being more commonly referred to as the “Arab NATO” was first mentioned in public back in 2017, when Donald Trump was paying an official visit to Riyadh. Back then Saudi royal family announced that it would love a form of a “security pact” to be signed by all of the US-aligned states in the region. Next year it was Washington that would be advancing this idea during its talks with regional forces, arguing that “joined Arab forces” should intervene in the Syrian conflict and pursue the agenda of countering Iran and radical terrorism (as if those two had something in common).
However, no matter how great this idea looked on paper for Washington, it’s a given that over the years, the absolute majority of the Persian Gulf states, the potential members of the MESA, have tainted their reputation with various terrorism sponsoring ventures, while the most powerful of those states – Saudi Arabia is reported to have spent some 100 billion on the promotion of Wahhabism. Moreover, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are known for their destabilization attempts in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, the slogan that Washington would use to promote MESA – that is the creation of an Arab coalition aimed at countering terrorism, extremism and aggression in all shapes and forms would sound rather hilarious.
So it’s clear that MESA has nothing in common with countering terrorism, so why would Washington need it in the first place? Well, it wants to draw the US-friendly regimes of the Middle East military bloc that would resemble NATO. Yet, this block would still have unique Arab characteristics, cementing various players in a Sunni stronghold that would try to prevent Iran’s regional expansion.
Washington expects that Jordan, Egypt and six Gulf states (Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia) will become the founding nations of the “Arab NATO”. However, it’s more of an example of wishful thinking than anything else , since there is a number of visible obstacles standing the way of such a development, namely, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other. Even though Doha hosts the largest US military base in the region, it is still treated like an outcast by its immediate neighbors, which resulted in Qatar making numerous steps towards improving its standing with Iran.
In turn, Oman would traditionally adheres to neutral status, while Kuwait and Bahrain together would have a hard time committing more than two hundred servicemen to MESA together.
As a result, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are the only beneficiaries of such an alliance and main players within it at the same time.
In November, the largest international military games across the Middle East, the so-called Shield of the Arabs 1, were held in Egypt. It brought together soldiers and observers from the total of eight Arab countries, with regional media sources describing those as a preparatory stage for the creation of an “Arab NATO”.
However, in spite of the loud protests voiced in Washington, both Kuwait, Oman and Qatar maintain close ties with Tehran, and should those states be drawn into MESA, its members will end up fight each other.
It curious that more than four years ago, Saudi Arabia would announce the creation of the largest anti-terrorism Islamist alliance in existence that had the exact same countries listed as its members, but then nothing happened, and Riyadh enjoyed far better relations with regional powers back then.
It has recently been reported that Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general and former head of US central command who has been working as an envoy for the Trump administration to resolve Washington’s disputes with Qatar, has resigned from his position with the State Department. He is the latest four-star general to exit the administration, which is a clear indicator that the concept of MESA is not really advancing. Before calling it quits, Zinni would try to sweet talk Doha in supporting Washington’s agenda, while it still remains besieged by American allies in the region. But then he realized that those attempts were fruitless because of the unwillingness, as he put it, of the regional leaders to agree to a viable mediation effort that Washington offered to conduct or assist in implementing.
But it’s goes much further than that. Among the factors that affected influenced Zinni’s decision to leave was Trump’s impulsive decision to announced an emergency withdraw of American troops from Syria, since this old veteran would tend to believe that strength is in numbers, so he would advocate the continuous increase of American boots on the ground all across the Middle East. It’s said that Anthony Zinni was particularly close to the former US state secretary Rex Tillerson, and once the latter decided that he had enough, Zinni tried to approach Michael Pompeo, but to no avail. Additionally, negotiations with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey on their involvement in MESA would all but fail too.
The American media point out that the general suffered a defeat on his mission to resolve the Qatari crisis. Zinni himself admitted that his mission to smooth out the contradictions between Qatar and its immediate neighbors was close to impossible for anyone to pull out.
The US State Department is trying to downplay the importance of his resignation, arguing that he was supposed to lay the grounwork for MESA, while Pompeo, Bolton and Kushner are said to be able to take it from there.
On the contrary, independent analysts would all point out that there’s no replacing the general, who was respected all across the Persian Gulf and had trusted contacts in the majority of Arab capitals. Some of them would also point out that two years into Trump’s term in office there’s been a significant shift in the leading figures playing lead roles in Washington’s designs, with more than 20 high-ranking officials abandoning their posts. According to the Brookings Institution, some 65% of senior advisors in Washington would call it quits over Trump’s presidency.
It’s clear that Washington’s agenda in the Middle East has suffered a huge blow when Anthony Zinni chose to resign, as this will literally kill the prospects of a MESA-related summit being held in the foreseeable future, putting a stake in the hear of Washington plans to draw together an anti-Iranian coalition.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”