One of the principles we learned in the study of international relations and which we, in turn, would teach to our students, was the need to distinguish between the essential, crucial issue and the “noise” that is so often created by incidental events, the rhetoric that political leaders use when dealing with domestic political circumstances, or other such phenomena that distract people from the major issues and preoccupy them.
For example, at the beginning of this decade, following the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring and the attendant upheavals that threw regional and international relations into turmoil, there emerged three sources of threat to regional security in the Middle East.
The first was proliferation of extremism, fanaticism and terrorism which attempted to create an “Islamic caliphate”.
Secondly, the vacuum that had arisen in many countries enticed Iran to fill it in, either with its own forces or, indirectly, through local puppets such as the People’s Mobilisation Units in Iraq, Hizbullah in Syria and Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.
The third threat was the anarchy and instability that resulted from the revolts and civil wars and that, whether directly or indirectly, had detrimental effects on the region on the whole.
Undoubtedly the three threats are linked in many ways. At any rate, all caused a state of chronic regional instability that invited a host of regional and international military and intelligence interventions.
This is the main regional security issue that Arab countries have been grappling with. A short while ago, the US unveiled a project for regional security called the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).
The project triggered heated debate which was quickly drowned out by two kinds of noise: the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the conflicting statements of US President Donald Trump followed by urgent interventions on the part of some members of Congress to steady Saudi-US relations and accompanied by a hullabaloo of biased media coverage and a cacophony of shrieked outcries opposed to Arab states and interests. However, is not our central concern the current state of the Middle East and how to handle its precarious and volatile conditions?
The reaction of a handful of Arab commentators to the MESA proposal was negative. They conjured up memories of the Baghdad Pact and the Central Treaty Organisation and the circuitous routes the US uses to penetrate and control the region in the interests of the “Zionist entity”, of course.
Some added an allusion to the Joint Arab Defence Treaty, signed by the members of the Arab League in 1950, as proof of the futility of Arab alliances and of the Arab League as well.
Not that those who voiced such reactions had the slightest knowledge about what went on between the various Arab parties concerned and the US when MESA was proposed. Nor did they bother to ask, “do the Arabs need the US in order to create an Arab alliance to readjust the balance of powers in the region to a degree sufficient to deter current threats?”
On numerous occasions in this column, I have discussed two points: the need to establish an Arab security system, or a Concert of Arabia, among the Arab powers that were spared the catastrophe of the “Arab Spring” and, secondly, the need to press forward with an ambitious programme for domestic reform in order to fortify the immunity of and safeguard the Arab nation state.
As we know, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain forged an alliance the purpose of which was not solely to deal with Qatari conspiracies but also to strengthen the military, security and economic relations between its four members.
Last week, Egypt and Saudi Arabia conducted the fourth in their series of Tabuk joint military drills. The two sides also regularly carry out maritime manoeuvres known as Morjan.
Egypt has similar series of bilateral military exercises with both the UAE and Bahrain. It might be useful to bear in mind, in this context, how Arab arms and Arab oil joined forces in the October 1973 War, how Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait stood by Egypt after the 30 June 2013 Revolution and how these Arab countries are standing by Bahrain and Jordan today.
As for reform, it is proceeding full steam ahead in the countries of the abovementioned quartet and in Jordan in Kuwait.
Sometimes these projects have a broader Arab regional dimension, as is the case with Saudi’s “Neom” city, which will span the borders with Egypt and Jordan, and with the Egyptian project to become a natural gas hub in the eastern Mediterranean and in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE have participated since the launch of SUMED to transport oil from the Gulf countries to the Mediterranean via the Red Sea and Egypt.
So the real question is not about the US proposal but about current developments in the Arab region and how ready the Arabs are to take tough decisions and, perhaps as well, to build on what has already been accomplished in the framework of economic and/or military cooperation or in the framework of resolving pending issues such as the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the agreement on which has added huge potential to both countries’ developmental prospects.
The abovementioned quartet alliance and reform projects are 100 per cent Arab from beginning to end. No one asked the US to build a Middle East alliance or an “Arab NATO”.
It does nothing to diminish the value of the US and its importance to this region and the world if the Arabs decide, on their own, how to defend their region and their people.
Maybe what they have already accomplished and is worth building on is the starting point for overcoming the current challenges and promoting stability, growth and prosperity.
True, Arab history is filled with ambitious projects, from the Joint Arab Defence Treaty in 1950 through the Joint Arab Command in the mid-1960s, to the Joint Arab Force that was created a few years ago.
What is important is that we have a wealth of information and lessons to draw on as we determine how to move from where we stand at present towards broader horizons in a manner commensurate to the threats which, we should add, could increase due to Iranian ambitions or to terrorist designs to undermine stability throughout the Arab region.
The current Arab quartet alliance was forged on the basis of its members’ collective will to strengthen security and economic cooperation between them in many ways.
The US is not a party to this alliance. In fact, it was the only country that suggested that the alliance’s sole purpose was to deal with Qatar, whereas the fact is that Doha occupied no greater place on the alliance’s agenda than that country’s size.
Now, these countries must identify the next steps needed to take their alliance further and enhance its abilities to deal with the abovementioned threats.
As a first step, they should set into motion a network of steering meetings at the level of heads-of-state, defence ministers and chiefs-of-staff, and economic and financial ministers, with the purpose of mapping out the future of their alliance.
It might be useful for them to take a leaf from the experience of developed nations in which a network of governmental and non-governmental political and strategic research centres generates the ideas and higher strategies for organising and structuring decision-making processes and marshalling the resources the system needs in order to realise its aims.
The above contained my thoughts on the greater question of Arab security. As for the noise, perhaps we will have some words to say on it at another time.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Arab strategic alliance