The US creation called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) — dubbed widely as “Arab NATO” — has made no progress in the two years since it was announced. The initiative has triggered controversy from the very beginning, and it would take a miracle for it to emerge any time soon following Egypt’s withdrawal in April. As a matter of fact, given that Egypt is the country with the Arab world’s largest army, the decision to pull out has been seen by many as the final nail of its coffin.
“This was never a meaningful initiative that would have amounted to anything substantial,” commented Professor Rex Brynen from the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. “I don’t know any strategic analyst who took it seriously.”
Unfortunately, the region has a long history of dysfunctional and marginalised institutions, with earlier attempts to set up a collective security organisation such as the Baghdad Pact or the Central Treaty Organisation-CENTO. Four years ago, the idea become topical again, when the Arab League initiated the “Arab Common Defence Force”, which has never materialised.
It was in May 2017 that US President Donald Trump decided to push the MESA project forward, urging Washington’s closest Arab allies to create a regional security pact under its name. The security partnership would include GCC countries plus Jordan and Egypt, with Israel also backing the alliance. It is believed that John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, has been a key proponent of MESA.
According to America’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Middle East, Mick P Mulroy, the US sees MESA as “a holistic agreement” to include economic, energy, political and security elements. However, he explained that MESA is not meant to establish an “Arab NATO” as there is “no intent to turn this into an ‘Article 5’-type situation where we have a treaty and are required to defend [Middle East states].”
Such an approach is wrong, according to Daniel Brumberg, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and a former consultant at the US Department of State. In his article Trump’s doom quest for Middle East Strategic Alliance, he expresses his deep disagreement with Trump and his rejection of the very premise that the US should act as an alliance leader by covering a good part of the economic and strategic bill. In fact, Trump “prefers passing most of the tab (and risks) to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, all the Gulf States, Israel and Turkey.” For Brumberg, every alliance needs a leader who is ready to take on more of the burdens than other members. “Who is that? The US under Trump? I don’t see it,” he insisted.
Moreover, Washington could not pick the worst moment for alliance-building, and it seems that the policymakers in the US have misjudged the regional situation. Most of all, the US ignored the ongoing feuds among its Arab allies, especially the Saudi-led economic and political boycott of Qatar. While the participation of Qatar and Oman in MESA has been unlikely from the very start, relations between other states are no less complicated. Brumberg said that the UAE’s decision to pull out of Yemen demonstrates the limits of any de facto alliance between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. “If this level of cooperation is not sustainable,” he told MEMO, “it is hard to imagine how the MESA has any future.”
Another key obstacle is that these countries do not share common security priorities and have completely different attitudes towards Iran and political Islam. Only Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, for example, perceive Iran as a major threat to their security. Qatar, on the other hand, looks at Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a much greater threat than Iran, while Oman has never had the slightest interest in security arrangements which assume a leading role for Saudi Arabia.
However, Iran is not the only concern of the US administration; a classified White House document reviewed by Reuters last year revealed that one of the main objectives of MESA is to limit the growing regional influence of Russia and China. Again, though, the US seems to have misjudged the situation on the ground.
Brumberg does not see any of the Arab countries or Israel countering Russia’s significant role in Syria, not only because Israel has a very good relationship with Russia, but also because the Trump administration has effectively conceded that role. China and Russia have also improved their relations with Middle Eastern states significantly, especially those from the GCC, through numerous bilateral and commercial agreements. It would thus be irrational for Arab states to burn the bridges leading to Beijing and Moscow.
Since one of MESA’s main goals, according to Mulroy, is to enable better military compatibility through the use of common munitions and weapons, and thus the ability to work together more effectively, some observers point out that the alliance would be an excellent business opportunity for the US arms industry. MESA could, therefore, provide an umbrella for a lucrative US arms monopoly in the region.
According to Brumberg, it’s not hard to imagine that these business considerations might be playing some role in the Trump administration’s thinking, but he doubts that this is the crucial factor in what remains an incoherent US Middle East security policy.
READ: US drone downed in Yemen
Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former US diplomat, agrees; American arms manufacturers would like to have a preferred channel into the Middle East market, but he is convinced that Congress is not going to provide what the White House and the Saudis want: simplified or automatic licensing for arms purchases. “That’s really unthinkable given Congressional attitudes towards Mohammad Bin Salman and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” he told MEMO.
There is a very good chance, therefore, that the grandly titled Middle East Strategic Alliance will go the way of that other US-instigated farce, the “deal of the century”, and be a non-starter. It is clearly just another marginalised initiative.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.