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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Towards an Arab NATO?

US proposals to set up an Arab NATO defence pact in the Middle East dangerously misunderstand the true dynamics of the region

Eman Ragab , Saturday 24 Nov 2018
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The US administration’s proposal for a new “strategic alliance in the Middle East,” or what has been called an “Arab NATO,” imprecise as this term may be, is a risky diplomatic adventure that reveals how the administration’s approach to the region is founded on outdated concepts that do not reflect the complex dynamics that have prevailed in it for many years.

According to the details in one document outlining this project, it seeks to reproduce the “6+2+1” formula proposed by the administration of former US president George W Bush following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, including the six Gulf countries, Jordan and Egypt, and the US.

This formula was a political mechanism meant to frame discussion of political alignments in the region. The same Arab countries are now envisioned as being at the core of the so-called Arab NATO.

The riskiness of the project resides in the historically demonstrable absence of the necessary mainstays to develop or build any regional security arrangement, in the strict sense of the term, capable of ensuring the collective security of its member states.

This is not due to a shortage of ideas on the mechanisms for such an arrangement or to the lack of treaties for the purpose.

Rather it is due to the lack of common perceptions among the countries in question regarding the sources of any threats and hence to a lack of agreement on the instruments needed to confront them.

Perhaps a good testimony to this is the failure to form the joint counter-terrorism force that Egypt proposed for the region in 2015.

Moreover, for several years the region has been in the process of a strategic transformation primarily associated with the former Obama administration’s principle of “taking a back seat” for the US in world leadership.

This triggered intense rivalry and competition between the US and countries such as Russia and China.

The influence these countries have succeeded in building during this period in the region will not suddenly vanish through the creation of a military alliance such as the American-proposed Arab NATO.

In addition, the adoption of the principle of retreating from a leadership position by the US threw the overall power balances between the region’s countries into such disarray that it became hard to speak of a regional leader or hegemon despite the attempts on the part of one regional power or another to play such a role.

The foregoing observations do not in themselves preclude the creation of a collective regional security arrangement that would guarantee the security and stability of its members and furnish peaceful means to handle any rivalries and disputes between them.

However, any such pact must accommodate the complexities that have come to exist in the Middle East.

Above all, they must furnish answers capable of obtaining a consensus among the countries that would join such a pact to four main questions that cannot be ignored when considering the creation of any regional security arrangements.

The document pertaining to the US-proposed project has not supplied any such answers to these questions.

They include, first, how would such a military pact handle the mounting challenges that violent non-state entities pose to states in the region? There are many instances in which the countries in question have come to accommodations with such entities by assimilating them into their institutions or reaching a formula for managing their relationship with them.

Second, how would any such new military pact relate to the recently formed Saudi-led military coalitions in the region, such as the Arab Coalition and the Islamic Coalition that also includes non-Arab states? While it is impossible to predict the future of such coalitions, it is also impossible to ignore them when considering the US-proposed pact.

Third, what will the relationship be between this new pact and Russia, whose influence in the region is in competition, and in certain cases in open conflict, with the traditional spheres of US influence? The same applies to the influence of China.

Any notion of striking a “non-competitive equilibrium” in the region, as has been voiced during discussions of the Arab NATO project, does not reflect the realities of the types of interplay in the region.

Fourth, what country is the pact being built to oppose? Israel is not a common enemy to all the eight countries that are supposed to form the new Arab NATO.

Indeed, a cornerstone of the concept is that many countries are prepared to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians and the perception of Israel as an enemy is fading in the mindsets of their ruling elites.

Evidence of this was seen in the recent visit of the Israeli prime minister to Oman and in similar visits by Israeli ministers to other Gulf countries.

As for Iran, the eight countries involved also do not see eye-to-eye on this question for reasons pertaining to their permanent or shifting interests.

The same applies to Russia and other powers that have succeeded in building spheres of interest in the region over recent years.

* The writer is a resident research fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Towards an Arab NATO? 

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