Home Arab NATO: A Reality Check

Arab NATO: A Reality Check

There is considerable speculation about the imminent rise of an ‘Arab NATO’ or ‘Middle East Strategic Alliance’ (MESA). The alliance, projected to comprise of the six nations of the GCC plus Egypt and Jordan was first mooted at the US-GCC Summit in Riyadh in May 2017[i]. This was soon followed by Saudi Arabia, along with UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, severing all ties with Qatar over alleged statements by Qatari authorities on terrorism as well as their support for Iran, throwing the GCC into disarray.

 More than a year later, the GCC remains fragmented and not much has happened on the Arab NATO proposal. There is also speculation that the US-GCC Summit scheduled at Camp David in October 2018 may be called off if the GCC is unable to find an amicable solution to the Qatar issue. While it is true that the summit could eventually take place at a later date and an Arab NATO discussed on that occasion, there are fundamental questions relating to the idea that needs to be resolved first.

GCC and Arab NATO

The GCC was established in 1981, shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution. It brought together the ideologically aligned countries of the Gulf region against the perceived threat from two enemies; Iran, an ideological enemy, and Iraq, a belligerent power; with the US offering security guarantees. While the GCC has survived over the past three decades, it can hardly call itself successful. Although with the ouster of Saddam Hussein the Iraqi threat was terminated, the perceived threat from Iran persists. With Iraq now aligned closer to Iran and the Syrian war bringing Iran to the forefront in Syria, the external threat to GCC across the Persian Gulf seems even more magnified. There has also hardly been any movement on resolving the Israel-Palestine issue in which the GCC is a major stakeholder. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 too has exposed major fault-lines and threats to the regimes in the GCC. Finally, the scourge of terrorism over the past two decades (especially after the 9/11 attack) has added a new dimension to the threat perspective of countries of the region.

Internally too, all is not well within the GCC. The spat with Qatar has exposed serious cracks within its structure. The ongoing war in Yemen may have brought the region together in the fight against the Houthis, but, on more than one occasion, Saudi Arabia and UAE have been found on opposing sides (for instance, the attempted coup in Aden in January 2018[ii] and the landing of UAE troops at Socotra Island in May 2018[iii] were both supported by the UAE). Also, it is a well known that Oman and Kuwait do not often tow the Saudi line and have followed an independent policy on regional issues, including relations with Iran.

With all these issues already weighing down the GCC, it is a moot question as to how the proposed Arab NATO or MESA will present a better model for the region. The inclusion of only Egypt and Jordan in the mix presents an interesting choice. Egypt gives regional clout and military teeth to the alliance. In the recent past, Egypt under President Sisi has supported Saudi Arabia’s regional policies and has even offered military support. Jordan too has supported GCC on regional issues like Palestine and could be useful as a frontline state of the alliance against Syria. Both these countries, therefore, in some form or the other, are already closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and GCC and can therefore hardly the reason to look for a new organization just to include them as members.  Yemen, which is part of the Arabian peninsula and a major security and a geopolitical headache for the GCC, does not find a mention along with other noticeable omissions such as Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Is it because Iran has acquired considerable influence in all these countries? If yes, then, is it not a tacit admission by the GCC that it has accepted Iran’s dominance in these countries and the actualization of the ‘Shiite Crescent’ across the Levant? If that be so, can the proposed composition of Arab NATO challenge it in a better manner than existing GCC. The answer, unfortunately, seems ‘No’. If a 41 nation Islamic Military Alliance[iv] led by Saudi Arabia and most members of GCC has not been able to make a significant dent in Syria, a reconfigured GCC in form of Arab NATO certainly can’t.

Where would this leave the Palestine issue? In recent months, reports suggest that Saudi Arabia has more or less accepted President Trump’s line on the Palestine issue. Although, publically Saudi Arabia had denounced the US announcement on 06 December 2017 of recognizing East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital[v] and its decision to shift US Embassy to East Jerusalem, there were reports of behind the scenes convergence on the issue. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan is supposed to have even confronted Palestine President Mohammed Abbas on the inflexible stand of Palestinians on the peace issue.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel are coordinating closely on security issues in the region, is an also indication towards this changing Saudi stand on Palestine and the region.

If the above alignments were to be formally accepted as true, it would present a rather fragmented situation in the Gulf region. There would be a Saudi Arabia-led and US-backed ‘Arab NATO’ on one side and an equally potent if not more powerful block comprising of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, etc on the other with pro-active support from Russia (as is being witnessed in Syria). The recent arms sales by the US in the region; US$ 110 billion to Saudi Arabia[vi] and US$ 300 million to Qatar[vii], adds to the potential of an arms race and prolonged period of mistrust and conflict in the region.. All this while, the talk of an Arab NATO presupposes that the Qatar being an existing member of GCC, will be taken back into the GCC and that the current crisis will soon be over. Qatar will therefore be not only back in GCC but will  be asked to become a partner in a new alliance formed as a counter to the very countries (Iran, Turkey) which came to its aid when it was isolated and abandoned!

Way Ahead

There is thus very little that the ‘Arab NATO’ could offer. Instead, a stronger and better synergized GCC is likely to offer better options. What is therefore required is to perhaps strengthen the existing structure of GCC. The first step towards this would obviously be finding an amicable solution to the Qatar crisis. Solving the Yemen crisis and inviting Yemen to join the GCC would be the next. A reconfigured GCC cannot leave out a large nation on the Arabian peninsula like Yemen. Inclusion of Yemen is likely to provide better synergy not only across the peninsula but also security across the vital Bab-al-Mandeb in the Red Sea through which majority of the sea trade and oil flows. Mutual trust and confidence amongst the member countries of the GCC to eventually reach the level of understanding that NATO members enjoy, viz.,  “armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all which could entail individual or collective response including positioning of military assets on each other’s territory” would have to be the next step before they start looking at enlarging the scope of this organization. A strong and potent GCC is the need of the hour towards a peaceful, strong and united Gulf Region.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.



[i]  “Why Donald Trump is pursuing an Arab Nato”, The Week, 30 June 2018,


[ii] “Yemen war: Deadly infighting rages in Aden”, BBC News, 29 January 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42858270 

[iii] UAE extends military reach in Yemen and Somalia, Reuters, 11 May 2018, https://in.reuters.com/article/uae-security-yemen-somalia/uae-extends-military-reach-in-yemen-and-somalia-idINKBN1IC1NX 

[iv] “After Egypt Mosque Massacre, 40 Defense Ministers Pledge Support for Saudi-led Muslim Military Alliance”, Haaretz News, 27 November 2017, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/egypt/egypt-attack-births-saudi-backed-muslim-military-alliance-1.5627006

[v] “Arabs, Europe, U.N. reject Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital”, Reuters News, 07 December 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-israel-jerusalem-reaction/arabs-europe-u-n-reject-trumps-recognition-of-jerusalem-as-israeli-capital-idUSKBN1E0312

[vi] “Trump signs Kushner-negotiated $100B Saudi arms deal”, CNN News, 20 May 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/19/politics/jared-kushner-saudi-arms-deal-lockheed-martin/index.html

[vii] “US approves $300m guided missile sale to Qatar”, Middle East Eye, 09 April 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-approves-300-mn-guided-missiles-qatar-1275667282

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Rajeev Agarwal

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