Among the world’s most unstable regions, none is faced with more serious geopolitical risks than the long arc stretching from the Maghreb to the Arabian Gulf.
For decades the Middle East has experienced upheavals that will change the face of the region for many years to come. The deadlock in the Arab-Israeli peace process, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the socio-political turbulence that followed the Arab Spring, and the rise of terrorism have been the main forces driving regional unrest.
Although the threats from the Islamic State (IS) terror group, which seized vast amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, have diminished, turmoil has risen across the Middle East and the flames of conflict are in danger of growing out of control.
Yet, political and security solutions to hold the collapsing regional order together and maintain its peace and security architecture are increasingly being called into question.
The issue was highlighted this week when leaders from some 70 countries met in the Polish capital of Warsaw in a new effort to foster regional security cooperation.
It is not clear what the conference, staged by the United States, will actually achieve, but doubts abound about Washington’s commitment to the troubled region. A mixture of impotence and confusion on the parts of Arab governments has also deepened the disarray.
Ahead of the conference, experts and politicians had already taken aim at the lack of preparations for it. Critics noted the participants’ “inability or unwillingness” to address core problems and challenges.
At issue is US President Donald Trump’s confusion on the Middle East, indecision and tendency to conduct American regional policy based primarily on the needs of Israel.
To make up for its misguided Middle East policies, the Trump administration has been pushing ahead with a bid to create a security and political framework with US regional allies.
Under the plan, the six US allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), as well as Egypt and Jordan, would fashion a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).
The goal of the alliance as articulated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be to “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security.” Other US officials also highlighted the aim of curbing terrorism and eliminating threats from IS.
Nevertheless, the US priority for the alliance, already nicknamed an “Arab NATO,” is plain: confronting Iran’s influence and countering its increased expansion in the region.
Yet, despite agreement by a broad spectrum of Arab governments and public opinion about the threats posed by Iranian policy, there are clear differences on where they stand in their priorities.
Although curbing Iran’s influence has long been overdue, many Arabs see more drama and intrigue in the Arab NATO project than substance. They believe the plans are formulated not to ensure regional stability but to impose Trump’s biased and flawed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Even before it convened, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner planned to make the long-awaited peace proposal, the so-called “deal of the century,” a focus for discussions with participants in Warsaw.
Kushner and US Special Representative to the Peace Process Jason Greenblatt will travel later to the region to ask oil-rich countries in the Gulf to finance the economic portion of the plan intended to give financial incentives to the Palestinians.
Though the administration had said it will not release details of the peace proposal before Israel’s elections on 9 April, its attempt to use the Warsaw forum to push the plan has fuelled speculation about the real objectives behind the summit.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has decided to stay away from the Warsaw Conference and warned that discussing the US peace plan will be a “stab in the back.” Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the PA had not “mandated anyone to talk on behalf of Palestine”.
Other major obstacles in the path of an Arab NATO include complex Arab divisions on regional issues. While Qatar’s deepening schism with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt has hit military cooperation, other Arab countries have showed indifference to the project for purely national security reasons.
While official reactions have remained muted, public criticisms have underscored concerns that the proposed alliance is focusing on building an anti-Iran coalition while ignoring the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict.
Critics have also rejected the planned pact out of fears that it will create a vehicle for a broader religious conflict in the region between Arab Sunnis and Shias as sectarian divisions increasingly manifest themselves on individual and national levels.
“The most worrying aspect [of the alliance] is the fear that it entails religious and sectarian dimensions,” wrote prominent Egyptian political science scholar Ali Eddin Hilal in Al-Ahram daily.
In a broader sense, the main objections remain related to fears that a tight-knit alliance will create a new regional system that would likely be quite different from the failing Middle East security order.
There are many specific concerns that the strategy the United States is pursuing in the Middle East by making Iran the main threat is intended to integrate Israel into the new regional system it hopes to create through the security alliance.
One more problem is that traditional Arab powerhouses, such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria, as well as other players like Jordan, Morocco and Algeria, are unlikely to cede regional leadership to Saudi Arabia and smaller countries in the Gulf.
Last week, foreign ministers from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates failed to issue a final communique after meeting in Jordan to coordinate stances ahead of the Warsaw summit.
Jordanian commentators monitoring the gathering later said that the six countries did not share priorities vis-à-vis the Warsaw Conference’s agenda and in particular the new military structure initiative.
The lack of agreement that has been demonstrated over the Arab NATO project has highlighted the challenges to regional security integration. It also underscores the need for a new Middle East political and security order that addresses the region’s unique historical and political factors and emerging circumstances.
The quest for an effective security order in the Middle East is as old as the region itself when its modern state system emerged after World War I.
A mixture of old rivalries, state fragility and colonial-power competition has since worked to shape the region’s security structure. For a century, all the security and political arrangements that did not emanate from its security needs have failed to bring peace and stability to the region.
As early as the 1950s when Britain and the United States pushed for the establishment of the Baghdad Pact, most Arabs have realised that the main threat to their countries was the then newly established state of Israel.
More Israeli wars, incursions and unabated onslaughts on its Arab neighbours have deepened the region’s security crisis, keeping the Arab-Israeli conflict the major area of confrontation.
Nobody who has an understanding of the threats and challenges can foresee an end to the Middle East security dilemma without first establishing a viable peace and allowing the Palestinians to have their own independent state on their own land.
The failure to resolve the Palestinian problem, the Israeli wars and the American strategies in the Middle East have benefited Iran and helped its Islamic regime to expand.
While the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982 facilitated the Iranian break-through into Lebanon and Syria, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the main catalyst for the Iranian influence in that beleaguered country.
While the Israeli blow against Lebanon led to the creation of Hizbullah, the Shia paramilitary group that later became Iran’s spearhead in Syria, Iraq’s Shia militias were part of a broader Shia empowerment induced by the US-led invasion.
In both cases, Iran was there to exploit the opportunities presented by Israel’s and America’s follies in order to rise and become a pivotal power in the Middle East.
Today, instead of letting the Arabs work out more realistic plans to confront Iran that build on national and regional assets, both Israel and the United States are borrowing from their long catalogue of failures and trying to engage the Arabs in their own wars and adventures.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The fallacy of an Arab NATO