Middle Eastern NATO: A bridge too far?

8 min read
05 January, 2023
Analysis: Israel, and the US, have been eager to create a regional military alliance with Gulf states to counter Iran, but the project poses multiple risks and few benefits for Gulf leaders.

In recent months there has been much speculation about regional security structures, with Israel being the most vocal about seeking greater military cooperation with Gulf states and even suggesting the creation of a ‘Middle Eastern NATO’.

This debate intensified after Biden’s July visit to the Middle East, with reports emerging of secret US-led meetings between regional officials who allegedly discussed a defence alliance.

However, the idea is still largely premature, and its implementation would likely encounter several insurmountable obstacles.

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Emerging initiative

The idea of a Middle Eastern security alliance is not new and has been promoted by the US since the 1950s, with the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) being the first in a series of initiatives.

More recently, the administration of former US president Donald Trump presented the idea of a Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA, a project previously initiated by his predecessor Barak Obama.

However, the proposal exposed major divisions and divergent strategies among Arab states, as well as fundamentally different attitudes towards both Iran and political Islam. The blockade of Qatar in 2017, and Egypt’s withdrawal from the proposed alliance after a vehement disagreement with Saudi Arabia, was the final nail in the coffin.

"Israel would like to have a NATO-style alliance with the Arab Gulf to contain Iran's perceived threat"

Yet a similar idea was again resurrected in the summer of 2021, only this time the proposed Arab alliance would include Israel, which has been pushing for greater military cooperation with Arab Gulf countries as part of its strategy to counter Iran’s power projection in the Middle East.

Former Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz announced in the summer that the alliance was already on its way and that Israel had joined what he called the Middle East Air Defence Alliance (MEAD), a US-led regional air defence network that included Arab countries.

While the formal establishment and further details of this alliance have not been confirmed, Jordan’s King Abdullah told the CNBC channel in June that his country would participate in the new initiative. Gulf countries have been rather cautious and have neither denied nor confirmed their participation.

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Speaking to The New Arab, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a prominent expert on Persian Gulf states and a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, said that US officials are working quietly behind the scenes with Gulf partners to develop and deepen existing security and defence ties within the framework of the fact that Israel is now a part of CENTCOM, which has made it easier operationally (and politically) to bring Israel and Arab Gulf partners together on certain issues.

Dr Robert G. Rabil, Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, told TNA that Israel would like to have a NATO-style alliance with the Arab Gulf to contain Iran’s perceived threat, which manifests in Tehran’s regional projection of power and spoiler role, attempting to build a weaponised nuclear program, and supporting non-state actors such as Hezbollah, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMF) in Iraq, and Yemen’s Houthis.

UAE Bahrain Israel Normalisation
Despite the Abraham Accords, Gulf states are apprehensive about a military alliance with Israel. [Getty]

A huge risk for Gulf countries

Gulf countries, especially the UAE and Bahrain, have not only normalised but also deepened their relationships with Israel on many socio-political, economic, and military levels. Saudi Arabia has also improved its informal ties with Israeli, including intelligence sharing.

Yet Gulf states have been united in their apprehension about the creation of a Middle Eastern NATO-style alliance.

Dr Rabil thinks that an alliance with Israel against Tehran would carry too great a risk for Gulf states as they “worry about being mired in a military confrontation between Israel (and the US) and Iran, which could be disastrous for them as partners or collateral damage”.

In a similar vein, Mark Heller, a Principal Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that there is no serious consideration of a Middle Eastern NATO in the sense of a formal security alliance involving a commitment by some members to come to the assistance of other members in the form of participation in combat. 

"The Ukraine crisis has revealed that the Arab Gulf is pursuing a policy of global self-interest, which does not necessarily overlap with American foreign policy"

Furthermore, Gulf states have never shared a unified point of view towards Iran, and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE - two states with the toughest stance on Iran - have lately started to modify their approach.

In this context, Dr Rabil noted that the UAE, for instance, has been keen to send senior officials to Iran to calm tensions while explicitly emphasising that Abu Dhabi is not and will not be part of any attempt to establish a Middle Easter NATO. Even Saudi Arabia, despite its grievances and tensions with Iran, has supported negotiations between the two countries to reduce tension in the region and prevent a military confrontation.

“From their perspective, they see that despite the Trump administration’s maximum pressure on Iran, Washington neither responded to Iran’s attack on Saudi’s oil facility nor to Iran’s missile attack on UAE,” Dr Rabil explained. “The Ukraine crisis has also revealed that the Arab Gulf is pursuing a policy of global self-interest, which does not necessarily overlap with American foreign policy,” he told The New Arab.

On the other hand, Heller observes that Israel is not, and cannot, be the ultimate security guarantor for anyone in the Gulf.  It is too small and too limited in resources. 

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“The Gulf states are doing what any sensible states would do in a similar situation – expanding the sources of outside support and assistance while making determined efforts to be their own ultimate security guarantors, rather than relying on anyone else.” 

At the same time, he noted, “they are exploring whatever possibilities may exist to minimise threats by calming relations with potential adversaries, especially Iran”.

Prof. Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, told TNA that any questions on the possibility of such an alliance “are hugely dependent on the impact of the recent Israeli election and especially the evolving power of the ethno-nationalist religious parties, not least the rise of Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power Party (JPP)”. 

Given the febrile and unstable nature of the current Israeli political scene and increasing support for JPP and similar parties among young Israelis, Rogers thinks that Netanyahu may well be pushed to one side by Ben-Gvir in the next two to three years. This would not bode well when it comes to further rapprochement with Gulf Arab states, who have been rather reserved towards Israeli extreme right-wing parties and leaders.

At the same time, Iran is undergoing serious tensions because of recent and current protests at a time when prospects for progress in JCPOA talks are weak despite the Biden administration still looking for a deal.

With such uncertainties, Prof. Rogers thinks that it is wise to navigate the complexities bearing in mind two elements: the new Israeli government and the Iran protests.  “How they evolve further may determine the prospects for a new alliance but at present the chances of success for its proponents are limited,” he told The New Arab.

Israeli politics have swung dramatically to the far-right following recent elections. [Getty]

Lack of necessary preconditions  

Ongoing diplomatic efforts by Gulf states aimed at easing tensions with Tehran suggest that an Arab-Israeli military alliance would unnecessarily spoil attempts at de-escalation.

Therefore, it seems that proponents of such an alliance have missed the critical historical momentum that perhaps existed in the past. It certainly cannot be applied at the present, as Iran does not pose an imminent existential threat to its neighbours.

Also, it is rather questionable whether the advocates of the Middle Eastern NATO project (Israel and the US, in the first place) are aware of the fact that an improvement of Arab-Israeli ties does not necessarily mean their willingness to confront Iran.

Moreover, evident differences between Israel and Arab states on one hand, and between Arab states themselves on the other, certainly do not contribute to the shared views and common goals for any alliance in the making.

"Ongoing diplomatic efforts by Gulf states aimed at easing tensions with Tehran suggest that an Arab-Israeli military alliance would unnecessarily spoil attempts at de-escalation"

From a historical perspective, military alliances such as NATO (but also the former Warsaw pact or  Small Entente, for instance) had been founded under unique circumstances and historical turning points.

Yet, the Middle Eastern alliance clearly lacks these preconditions, as the potential threat from Iran (which is differently perceived from state to state) is simply not a strong enough reason for the creation of an alliance between states of such diversified social, political, and ethnic character.  

Military coordination/subordination could also pose a serious point of discord, as had already been evident in the case of MESA when Egypt announced that it did not share common strategic objectives with other states and expressed deep disagreement with the idea that its army should be placed under the joint command of another country.

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While Saudi Arabia and UAE have achieved a certain level of coordination during the war in Yemen, this is certainly not the case with other armies who have neither collaborated in the past nor share similar doctrines. The same could be said for issues related to the interoperability of different types of defence equipment.

While the scope of cooperation between Israel and Gulf states has its limits, it serves an overall improvement of stability in the region, as until not long ago this kind of debate was practically unthinkable.

After all, Heller observes that much of the insecurity of Gulf monarchies stems from the character of the Iranian regime noting that “it is sometimes said that nothing in politics is permanent, but among things that come close to permanent in this part of the world is Persian-Arab suspicion/ hostility”. 

In his view “as long as Gulf fear of Iran and American reluctance to be the world’s policeman outweigh Arab dislike of Israel, Gulf-Israel cooperation can be expected to continue”.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.