The writer is an
analyst and the
President of All
Joe Biden has said that the US is committed to Israel’s security on his visit to the Middle East, a trip focused on deepening the majority Jewish state’s ties with the Arab world as the region faces a common foe in Iran. Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, said Israel had joined a new US-led network that he called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance or MEAD. Gantz did not specify which Arab nations might also be involved. Whereas, The Wall Street Journal reported on secret meetings held in Egypt that saw military officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain come together to discuss cooperation on defense. The idea of a NATO-style defensive military alliance for the Middle East resurfaced during US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region. Despite the growing relations between Israel and the Gulf countries to counter the Iranian block and mainly to protect Israel amid gradual American withdrawal from the region, the emergence of a NATO-style alliance is unlikely for now. Any such defensive alliance is most likely to include the states that already have a relationship of some sort with Israel. That includes the signatories to the Abraham Accords — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco — as well as Jordan and Egypt, countries that already have existing diplomatic ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait could also play a role in the alliance, and the US, widely seen as brokering such a deal, would certainly also be involved. Would that be a solution and, if yes, would it be possible to form such a powerful alliance? Although there is a greater will and push for broader regional cooperation, a joint security pact faces some obstacles. There is now a debate about whether to create a new alliance or to improve these existing structures.
What if Israel decided to invade and seize some more land of Lebanon, Jordon, Egypt, Syrian or Iraq territory in the name of ‘Greater Israel’ by using this Arab NATO to use as a springboard for further military attacks on the region?
The idea of a Middle East security alliance is not new, and the idea of an ‘Arab NATO’ has been put forward many times, but it has never crystallized, at least in the short term, it will not. Since the 1950s, the Baghdad Pact which had only one Arab member Iraq alongside Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and the UK lasted for about two decades from the mid-1950s. The US — a major security guarantor in the Middle East, especially among the oil-producing Gulf states — has actually encouraged this kind of defense cooperation for decades. In the 1950s, there was the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO, formed to counter possible Soviet expansion in the region. But it was never considered particularly effective and was dissolved in 1979. The other primary vehicle of NATO policies in the region is the Mediterranean Dialogue, signed in 1994 with Israel and six Arab countries Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan. Ankara was also instrumental in launching the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in 2004 which involved the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. These partnerships were later revised to include a variety of activities ranging from diplomatic consultations to training activities. There have been two non-starters in the past seven years: A 2015 Arab League plan for a combined anti-terrorism force; and a 2017 proposal for a Middle East Security Alliance, or MESA, proposed by Saudi Arabia and given full-throated backing by President Donald Trump. In 2017, NATO and Kuwait inaugurated the NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center, calling it “a new home for the alliance in the Gulf.” The center brings together NATO and Gulf officers through courses focused on security issues such as maritime security and energy infrastructure security, or cybersecurity. All such above Alliances were made with the support of the West and the US-led network. Most recently, the US government under former President Donald Trump touted a Middle East Strategic Alliance or MESA. The US under Barack Obama also had versions of such an alliance. Current US President Joe Biden is expected to discuss this topic during his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In the past, none of the plans for an “Arab NATO” were ever particularly successful, but this time involvement of Israel led by the US is important. However, in the case of an Arab NATO, common security goals and a common threat have not been clearly defined. There are other potential issues. First, the countries expected to be involved in this pact have diverse security systems and military engagements. Second, the pact expects to be formed against Iran, but there are differing views on Iran’s policies in the region. And not every Arab country sees Iran as its greatest enemy; others, like Egypt, have varied political priorities. Third, not every country has normalized relations with Israel to form a common pact. Fourth, the problem would be the role of Israel, since Israeli-Palestinian issues will always complicate such an arrangement. Fifth, some of the possible members have developed their own security mechanisms mostly against domestic threats rather than external ones. Sixth, Egypt’s population has always been so big that it would dominate any alliance. Saudi Arabia plays roughly the same role inside the GCC. The sizes of the countries are so different that you can’t have a true alliance of equals. The seventh issue is the lack of trust between the countries in the region. Eighth, logistically, there are interoperability issues — that is, different countries use different weapons systems and planes. The Israel-Palestine issue also continues to be a major stumbling block for Arab nations when it comes to cooperation with Israel. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has refused to establish closer ties with Israel because of this. The purported member’s alliance still doesn’t trust one another, and the political relations among them are rough and uncertain, without Saudi-Israeli normalization, it would be quite difficult to progress. It’s not just Israel either: There are also still concerns and rivalries among many of the states in the Middle East, including between the Gulf countries. A defensive alliance like NATO would require sharing a lot of intelligence and information. For many of the states involved, that remains incredibly sensitive and they see it as impinging on their own sovereignty. As to whether this kind of cooperation might actually cause more problems if, Iran saw it as a threat or thought its enemies were ganging up on it. Although, the strategies and policy tools that could be applied to cope with common threats have not been identified. Most discussion has been focused on cooperation in air defense, which could pave the way for sharing intelligence and military operational plans to prevent attacks. In this regard, Turkey, the first Muslim country who recognised Israel, with its significant capabilities in air defense could be an important partner for such an alliance rather than being a member of it. In the past two decades, Turkey has engaged with each GCC country through the defense and military cooperation. Egypt remains a wild card — Kuwait would also be in this camp if Israel were omitted.
But there are some good reasons for the creation of a Muslim NATO despite Arab NATO. What if Israel decided to invade and seize some more land of Lebanon, Jordon, Egypt, Syrian, or Iraq territory in the name of ‘Greater Israel’ by using this Arab NATO to use as a springboard for further military attacks in the region? What if Turkey annexed some areas of northern Iraq? What if a peaceful solution is not reached in Yemen? What if the Iraqi government decided to attack Kuwait again? And what if the US, China, and Russia extended their hand in North Africa? The OIC and Muslim countries should seriously consider establishing a Muslim NATO rather than an Arab NATO. It is high time for the OIC and Muslim countries to gain power by depending only on themselves and building joint capabilities to deter any threats coming their way. The US, and Israel’s involvement in threat to security in the Middle East, has been slowly increasing in the region for several years now. Arabs are increasingly aware that their past bets on Western powers, especially the US, may not have been successful. The fact that Israel’s involvement in the region is also noteworthy, which will create more tensions among the Arab nations and Iran. The main goal of the US-led network ‘Arab NATO’ is to integrate Israel into a military alliance in the Middle East to counter Iran. This would be a continuation of the ‘Greater Israel’ and improved contacts between Israel and its Arab neighbors that began with the so-called Abraham Accords in 2020. There have been two important developments since those previous failures; first, Israel has normalized relations with some Arab states and is moving toward similar arrangements with others, which means the Israel Defense Forces will likely be part of any new alliance, second, the danger to Iran posed by Atomic Israel is clearer and more potent than ever. Iran is on the brink of nuclear weapons capability, having built a substantial stockpile of uranium enriched well past the point of civilian use. The Biden administration believes that the threat can be blunted by reviving the 2015 nuclear deal Iran struck with the world powers. The Israelis and Arabs have different threat perceptions about Iran as well as different strategies on how to deal with Tehran. Most Arab and African countries enjoy good relations with Iran. All this means that the task of holding back Iran, whatever the outcome of the nuclear negotiations, will fall mainly to the US and Israel. So, any proposal for a Middle Eastern NATO or Arab NATO is a dead letter.
US solution of peace in the Middle East will create more war, pile in the weapons, splurge on militarism and threaten to engage in all-out economic and financial war against Iran and it’s allayed. This can only fuel the fire that has already been ignited, which means more instability in the Middle East and the region. So, the need for a strong, well-equipped, and professionally trained military alliance has become obvious for the OIC and Muslim countries, in the shape of Muslim NATO rather than an Arab NATO, to counter Greater Israel.