An 'Arab NATO' united against Iran is easier said than done

An 'Arab NATO' united against Iran is easier said than done
Analysis: The GCC is fractured, Oman has a legacy of neutrality and Qatar is under siege by other Gulf nations. Trump's bid to unite them all against Iran is doomed.
5 min read
07 August, 2018
It's difficult to get Gulf powers to agree to anything [Getty]

The Trump administration's bid to establish an "Arab NATO" to mitigate Iranian expansionism in the Middle East is much easier said than done, at least if history is any indicator.

The proposed alliance is called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), and will "serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East" according to a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.

If it becomes reality, MESA will consist of the existing six Sunni members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) along with Egypt and Jordan.

"The alliance would put emphasis on Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates working closer together with the Trump administration on confronting Iran," noted a Reuters report.

This isn't surprising considering Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are the regional powers that spearheaded both the war in Yemen as well as the blockade of Qatar. Despite the ostensible unity of the GCC its member states have varying foreign policies and outlooks. One reason for the blockade of Qatar was because Doha's foreign policy diverged from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Two major powers in the wider region, Egypt and Turkey, quickly came down on opposite sides of the dispute.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, predictably, sided with his Saudi and Emirati patrons. Ankara meanwhile gave Qatar significant support diplomatically, and by seeking to negotiate an end to the blockade, materially. It also helped the Qataris circumvent the blockade which lessened its effects, and even supported Doha militarily, by sending additional troops to Qatar to deter any potential attack.

It was recently reported that Saudi Arabia and the UAE came close to actually invading Qatar last year in what would likely have become an intra-GCC war. They were only dissuaded from doing so by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to the unconfirmed report.

The continued blockade on Qatar and disunity in the GCC has also irked the Trump administration and is a clear stumbling block for the creation of any successful alliance in the Gulf region.

In December, a GCC meeting abruptly ended within hours after the UAE said it was establishing "a bilateral cooperation committee with Saudi Arabia, separate from the GCC to collaborate on political, economic and military issues".

Oman is also highly unlikely to contribute substantially to any alliance against Iran since it has historically played the role of mediator and has retained friendly relations with both Tehran and the GCC state. Aside from the Qatar blockade, the GCC's Peninsula Shield Force's most substantial operation to date was its intervention in the Bahraini uprising - again spearheaded by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi - in early 2011 to help suppress the disenfranchised Shia majority on the island. 

GCC states supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its vicious eight-year war against Iran by providing it with billions in loans

Intra-rivalries in such alliances are, of course, not necessarily uncommon.

Greece and Turkey are both members of the actual NATO alliance and have been at loggerheads for decades. Their respective heavily US-armed militaries have often faced off against each over the Aegean Sea in recent decades.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the only divided capital city in Europe was Nicosia in Cyprus, the partition of which was a result of Greek and Turkish rivalries there. However, that dispute, serious as it remains, never quite fatally undermined the wider NATO alliance the way fissures in the GCC could make an effective MESA alliance very difficult to establish.

The GCC is a political-military alliance founded in the early 1980s which aimed to unify the regional states and counterbalance Iran, at a time when the infant Islamic Republic was seeking to export the Iranian revolution throughout the region. GCC states supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its vicious eight-year war against Iran by providing it with billions in loans. This backfired in August 1990 when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, a fellow Arab state and a GCC member.

Iran remained largely neutral in the ensuing 1991 Gulf War, in which an enormous US-led coalition forced Iraq from Kuwait. It became clear thereafter that the GCC's main security concern was Iraq, a far more immediate and serious threat than Iran then posed. In the mid-1990s the alliance even contemplated providing Egypt and Syria with billions in aid in return for them stationing tens-of-thousands of their troops in the Gulf region to deter Baghdad.

The plan never materialised, for numerous reasons, but was an indication of the clear lack of large standing armies in the GCC's arsenal. This is likely one reason why Egypt is to be included in MESA since it has a large army and has relied on enormous investments from the Saudis and Emiratis to help prop up its troubled economy.

Another Saudi-initiated alliance, announced in December 2015, has also not been fully realised after almost three years. The 41-member Islamic Military Alliance to Counter Terrorism (IMCTC), also sometimes referred to as an "Arab NATO", did undertake an exercise in 2016 in Saudi Arabia named "Northern Thunder".

The numbers involved were disputed, with press reports claiming as many as 350,000 troops - while the military affairs journal IHS Jane's 360 estimated that it was no larger than the Bright Star 2000 exercise held in Egypt in 1999, which involved 73,000 troops.

Whatever the number of troops in that display of strength, the IMCTC has not actually participated in any regional conflicts since its inception. As one Hurriyet columnist quipped last year: "The Northern Thunder blew and roared but did it rain when it was time to rain?"

With these precedents it would hardly be surprising if a MESA alliance doesn't materialise. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon