Skip to main content

An Arab NATO? That's a long way off

With the days of Western security guarantees over, Gulf countries are leading a drive for regional security cooperation

Even as the US’s allies try to make sense of the Trump administration’s contradictory, and often critical, statements about NATO, a story has emerged claiming that the US administration wants to help build an Arab equivalent of the alliance.

Whatever the exact status of this supposed policy - at a time of high uncertainty and often contradictory announcements - the story highlights two important trends in Middle East security developments.

Civil society is often dubious about - or outright threatened by - cooperation between the internal security forces in countries that remain authoritarian

The first is the aspiration that exists in the Arab world to intensify regional security cooperation. Despite the cultural and linguistic commonalities of the region, political and economic differences, as well as colonial legacies, have limited the scope of regional cooperation, whether that is political, economic or military. Currently, the Arab League is one of the world’s weakest regional organisations.

Even the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises just six monarchies who appear to have more in common than the 22 states (and Palestine) of the Arab League, has struggled to find a common line on many of the key security issues its members face - from Iran, to Yemen, to the role of political Islam.

Nonetheless, it is Gulf countries that are currently leading the drive for regional security cooperation, through the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that is fighting in Yemen, and another Saudi-led "Islamic Military Alliance", Northern Thunder. The latter has also ambitiously styled itself as a “Muslim NATO” to fight extremism.

Traditionally, the Gulf countries have depended on Western security guarantees, but are now seeking to have options closer to home, especially in the Arab and Islamic world.

Self-reliance falls short

This is partly the natural evolution of postcolonial states, and partly a response to the perception that the US’s commitment to Gulf security is no longer as assured as it was in the past.

This perception is probably exaggerated, but it reflects the long-term changes in the oil market, the lack of public support in the US for military interventions in the Middle East, and divergent ideas about what future security threats to Gulf states will look like.

The lack of any credible threat of intervention against Assad has led many to conclude that the region needs its own intervention force and cannot rely on the US or others to intervene

On the latter point, some of the biggest concerns for the Gulf governments centre on scenarios where regimes are threatened by domestic or transnational movements rather than by other states, and they are not certain whether the US would defend them from such threats.

They therefore have a desire to be more self-reliant, with the UAE and now Saudi Arabia seeking to develop their own defence industries rather than rely entirely on imports that could in future be suspended by foreign parliaments, while the UAE and Qatar are both introducing national service. And given that most of them have small populations, their governments are looking for security cooperation with countries that have more military manpower – especially Egypt.

Leaders of the countries participating in Saudi's 'Northern Thunder' military exercises in March 2016 look on (AFP)
Among civil society, the general deficit of regional cooperation is almost universally lamented - especially on the economic side; any gathering of regional economists addressing the Arab world's ills will recommend greater regional cooperation, but will sigh that it never happens, and blame governments for failing to overcome their political differences.

When it comes to security cooperation, feelings are more mixed; civil society is often dubious about - or outright threatened by - cooperation between the internal security forces in countries that mostly remain authoritarian.

As for military cooperation, the war in Syria, and the lack of any credible threat of intervention against President Assad has led many in the current generation to conclude that the region needs its own intervention force and cannot rely on the US or others to intervene even to stop massacres.

Despite his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and campaign criticisms of Hillary Clinton for links to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Trump is likely to have good relations with the Gulf Arab states

But Syria has also illustrated the divides within the Arab world, as there is also extensive opposition to any suggestion of Gulf or Turkish involvement there, and the political divide has tended to fall largely - though not exclusively - along sectarian lines.

One of the criticisms of the Saudi-led Northern Thunder alliance is that it has been, until very recently, exclusively made up of Sunni-majority states. In December 2016 Oman joined, but Iran and Iraq are still outside the grouping.

The Obama administration had already sought to encourage greater regional security cooperation, since it wanted to reduce the long-term presence of its own forces in the region. But it had some buyer's remorse after seeing how "regional solutions to regional problems" played out in Syria and Yemen.

Common enemy no longer Israel: It's Iran

The second major trend is the changes in regional threat perceptions in recent decades, which have left key Arab states seeing Israel less as an enemy than as a state with which they share other common enemies. Instead, the focus of key Arab governments is on the perceived threat from Iran, and from a variety of transnational non-state groups, notably the Islamic State (IS) group and al-Qaeda.

Egypt and Israel's militaries are today cooperating more than they have ever done in the past

Egypt and Israel's militaries are today cooperating more than they have ever done in the past, in order to protect themselves from an insurgency in the Sinai, which they largely see as a common threat. And while the Gulf states officially still have no diplomatic relations with Israel, they do not see it as a geopolitical threat.

Given this, the idea of an Arab regional security grouping that might quietly work with Israel is not surprising. But putting it into practice remains problematic, not least because of divisions among Arab governments (who may agree on fighting IS, for instance, but have diametrically opposed views on the Muslim Brotherhood), as well as the competition between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

These issues have thus far made it difficult even to build a Gulf military alliance, especially beyond the single issue of Yemen, while even in Yemen there are significant strategic differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE over which flavour of local Islamists to work with.

Sectarian divisions

There are also questions about how such an alliance of Arab states might address the most complex security challenges facing the region, in terms of state failure and fragility, and the resurgence of a violent and divisive form of identity politics based around Sunni-Shia sectarianism.

The latter is sometimes instrumentalised by states - not least Iran and Saudi Arabia - but ultimately threatens all of them. The Yemen war has exacerbated state dysfunction and sectarian violence in the Arab world's poorest country, in a way unlikely to bring lasting stability to the Arabian peninsula.

Obama had said that the Gulf states might face more risks from internal challenges than from Iran. Trump's administration is likely to take the opposite view, taking a tougher stance on Iran, at least rhetorically, and seeing internal politics as states' own business; an attitude that will be welcomed by Arab states themselves.

They will take a similar position on Trump's own policies - as when the UAE's foreign minister said the new US administration's ban on visas from seven Muslim countries was an internal issue for the US. Indeed, America's Western allies in the UK, Germany or Canada have been more critical of the visa ban than the Gulf states or Egypt have.

All this underlines that despite his anti-Muslim rhetoric, and campaign criticisms of Hillary Clinton for links to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Trump is likely to have good relations with the Gulf Arab States as well as with Egypt.

And while policies towards the Gulf are unlikely to change greatly, the new US administration is likely to give stronger support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But any meaningful “Arab NATO” remains a very long way off. 

- Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. Her previous positions include associate director for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Group, Middle East and North Africa editor and economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit from 2006 to 2010 and managing editor for Middle East and Africa at Business Monitor International from 2003 to 2006, and she contributes regularly to the media, including The Economist, the Guardian and Foreign Policy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A picture taken on 10 March 2016 shows military watching smoke billowing during the Northern Thunder military exercises in Hafr al-Batin, 500 kilometres north-east of the Saudi capital Riyadh (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.