By Isabella Wang
By Isabella Wang
Rabat – President Trump has proposed a security and political alliance in the Middle East.
Known formally as the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the proposed alliance would include the six Gulf Arab states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as Egypt and Jordan.
The White House confirmed that they have been working on the prospects of an alliance with “our regional partners now and have been for several months.” The plans arise after President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year, where officials had raised the idea of a security pact.
Sources revealed to Reuters that the administration hopes to discuss the plans for the alliance at a summit, provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12-13.
The proposed pan-Arab alliance is intended to foster deeper cooperation between the countries on military defense, training, and counter-terrorism and to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties, predicated upon the Sunni Muslim identity of the participating nations.
Antagonistic characterization of Iran
Inherent to the proposed alliance is opposition to Iran. Some are even calling it the “Arab NATO.” In the easy ring of the disyllabic nickname and the association to the familiar “NATO,” the Trump administration is constructing an analogous narrative in which the alliance would contend against Iran’s looming expansionist powers, likened to that of the Soviet Union.
As a spokesperson from the White House’s National Security Council said, “MESA will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East.”
Such rhetoric has been characteristic of the Trump administration. His foreign policy has depicted Iran as the sole source of instability and conflict in the Middle East.
In his remarks on the Iran strategy on October 13, 2017, Trump outlined that Iran is a “dictatorship” which “remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” and “proliferates missiles,” and “fueled sectarian violence in Iraq, and vicious civil wars in Yemen and Syria,” holding a “sinister vision for the future.”
Similarly, his 2017 National Security Strategy described Iran as a “dictatorship” and “rogue state” which is “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies and brutalize [its] own people.”
Yet, the administration’s depiction of Iran has hyperbolically inflated the threat of Iran, portraying Iran as a sole catchall catalyst for the instability permeating the Middle East region.
While Iran has certainly sought to limit and undermine US influence in the region, many sources of instability in the Middle East are internal, entrenched in problems of ineffective governance and weak civil society.
Exacerbation of sectarian conflict
The rhetoric of an Arab NATO is predicated upon an ideological and religious divide, establishing a dichotomy between the “unified Sunni coalition” and Iran’s threatening Shi’ite expansionism.
It reaffirms the narrative prominently disseminated by the Arab Gulf states that Iran is pursuing a hegemonic design which undermines the legitimacy of their Sunni dynastic rule.
A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “Under the pretext of securing stability in the Middle East, Americans and their regional allies are fomenting tension in the region.” It would only be “deepening the gaps between Iran, its regional allies and the US-backed Arab countries.”
By constructing a narrative of Iran’s hostile expansionism, the rhetoric behind the alliance and the greater Trump administration only submerges the region into further sectarian conflict. The rhetoric defines the alliance as the countries involved by the proxy war of Saudi Arabia versus Iran and as the religious dichotomy of Sunni versus Shiite.
While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are nations with dominant Sunni populations, majorities in Iraq and Bahrain as well as minorities in Kuwait are not Sunni. Egypt has only an insignificant Shia population, and Iran is only a tertiary concern.
The Arab NATO’s sole mission as a bulwark against Iran and its Shi’ite expansionism thus compels such countries to engage in a proxy war and sectarian conflict which does not align with or may even go against their interests.
The US has focused upon the problems of Shia sectarianism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but has not acknowledged concerns about Sunni sectarian bigotry and takfirist jihadi terrorism. The ideology has treated Shias as kuffar (unbelievers), mushrikin (idolaters) and rawafid (rejecters of Sunni orthodoxy).
Possibility of further military action?
By constructing a narrative of Iran’s belligerence and the necessity for security, the proposal for an Arab NATO allows the US political cover to sponsor further militancy and intervention in the Middle East.
As part of Trump’s new “America First” policy, the White House exhorts its allies to play an active role in confronting regional security threats.
In a press briefing in 2017, H. R. McMaster, US National Security Advisor stated that Trump “will encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold, new steps to promote peace and to confront those, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to the Assad regime, who perpetuate chaos and violence that has inflicted so much suffering throughout the Muslim world and beyond.”
Currently, the most concrete part of the proposal is a US arms package for Saudi Arabia, which Trump announced in Riyadh in May last year. Although details have not been finalized, the deal will be incredibly lucrative for the US. Officials stated that the package will include between $98-$128 billion in arms sales and has the potential to reach $350 billion in total over 10 years.
The arms deal and the US ideological supporting of Saudi Arabia and the alliance establishes the political basis for possible further military assistance or interventions in the Middle East.
The consequences of such have already been demonstrated in Yemen. In late 2017, after Houthi rebels fired ballistic missiles at Saudi cities, the US sent special forces to the Saudi-Yemen border to aid the Saudi military in finding and destroying Houthi missile sites.
The clandestine mission has only escalated the US participation in the Saudi-led war. The war in Yemen has no end in sight, and the US’ military and logistical support of Saudi Arabia has only exacerbated the severity of the humanitarian crisis.
Currently in Yemen more than 22 million people, 75 percent of the population, is in need of humanitarian aid. Further, at least 8 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine and 1 million are infected with cholera.
Is an alliance viable?
The Middle East has already made many attempts to establish regional alliances, yet each has been undermined by the fractious geopolitics of the region.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of only the six Gulf monarchies, has struggled to agree on key security issues, ranging from Iran to Yemen and the role of political Islam.
Only a year ago in June did the Gulf Cooperation Council abruptly sever all diplomatic ties with Qatar. Qatar’s history with the Council had already been precarious.
Tensions over Qatar’s on-and-off support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its long-standing disagreements on relations with Iran culminated in the April 2017 hostage crisis which saw Qatar negotiate with both Sunni and Shi’ite militants in Iraq and Syria. As a result, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a land, air, and sea embargo on Qatar.
There are also underlying divisions in the policies of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. While Saudi Arabia, with its vast oil reserves and strengthening relationship with the US, views itself as a beacon of non-extremist Islam fighting against Iran and Islamist activists, the UAE also seeks regional leadership as a more economically and politically secure nation.
Their divergent perspectives on Yemen has also left the coalition between Saudi Arabia and UAE vulnerable.
Naysan Longley of the International Crisis Group stated, “Riyadh is converging with Yemen’s influential Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which is one of the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when Abu Dhabi is opposed to any cooperation with this party.”
The proposal for the alliance represents an effort to foster cooperation that transcends mere short-term parochial goals in Middle Eastern policy. Yet nevertheless, the Middle East cannot be simplified into a dichotomous narrative of a neatly packaged Arab alliance against the hostility of Iran.
There are a myriad of geopolitically rooted divisions, fractious politics, and individual political aims within the Middle East which could undermine the viability of the alliance.