The Arab NATO — an alliance of regional foes?

  • 23 Jan 2019

Despite US efforts to set up an Arab alliance to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, the Arab countries attending the Warsaw summit have different priorities and conflicting foreign policies.

In Dec. 6, 2016 photo released by Bahrain News Agency, and made available today, Saudi King Salman, centre, poses with the rest of Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, leaders during the Arabian Gulf countries summit in Manama, Bahrain. ( AP )

The Trump administration is seeking to create a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Known as the Arab NATO, the formation will serve as a front against Iran in the Middle East.

The US announced an international summit in Warsaw, Poland, on February 13 and 14 with the sole intent of persuading countries, especially the Arab nations, to stand against Iran.

The White House hopes for a deeper cooperation between the countries on missile defense, military training, counter-terrorism and other issues, such as strengthening regional economic and diplomatic ties. 

The plan to forge an Arab NATO of Sunni Muslim allies will likely raise tensions between the United States and Shia Iran — the two countries are increasingly at odds since President Donald Trump took office.

However, some of the countries the US wants to include in its new fighting front have separate priorities and rather than creating unity, their longstanding territorial and ideological conflicts are dividing them. 

Qatar is one of the countries the US has invited to the Warsaw summit. The Saudi-led Gulf bloc has imposed an economic blockade against Qatar since June 2017. 

The Saudi-led bloc has expressed its anger over Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has questioned its ties with Iran, as well as accusing the gas-rich Gulf state of working to destabilise the region and of harbouring and supporting terrorists.

Qatar has rejected the accusations and the demands, calling the blockade a politically motivated attempt to undermine its sovereignty.

The political dispute between Qatar and the Saudi-led Arab countries continues to haunt the Gulf region. 

Qatar has however improved its relations with Iran for strategic and diplomatic reasons. Iran opened its airspace to Qatari flights, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE closed theirs.

The UAE and Bahrain, two countries involved in blockading Qatar, have recently reopened their embassies in Syrian capital Damascus after seven years of brutal war by saying the move is to counter Iranian influence in Syria. 

Yet they have made no such move to warm relations with Qatar, indicating the dispute between the five Arab nations and Qatar is deeper than alleged Iranian influence in the region.

In view of all these conflicts and questions, would an Arab NATO be effective? Developments in Yemen suggest it would not be a success.

The Saudi-UAE-led coalition has been waging a brutal campaign against Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Even though the coalition has much superior firepower and manpower it has not been able to defeat the rebels and the conflict is at a standstill.

Although Iran is the archenemy of Saudi Arabia and most, if not all, of Saudi’s militaristic moves are made to counter Tehran’s influence in the region, this is not the case with countries like Egypt, Jordan and most of the countries that would be in the so-called Arab NATO.

Forming this alliance on the basis of combating Iran would serve Saudi goals in the region but it would not do much else for rest of the members since most of their foreign policies are not based on countering Iran.

Egypt has made the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence regionally and internationally its priority since 2013, the year of the coup against democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi.

For the Abdel Fattah al Sisi regime, it's not the Iranians but the Muslim Brotherhood which poses a greater threat.