A Middle East NATO Is Neither Likely Nor Desirable

Hasan Alhasan

The following article was originally published on July 18.

The Trump administration has hinted at plans to set up a NATO-like security alliance in the Middle East since last year. Fast forward a year, and there are signs of fresh life to the idea. The plan appears to be part of an effort by the US to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to contain the influence of Iran, an American interest reiterated last week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who while on a visit to the region spoke of the need for a “united opposition” to Tehran. That said, the idea of a NATO-like security alliance in the Middle East is not very new, and in fact dates as far back as the Cold War. Despite repeated attempts, no credible security alliance has yet endured in the Middle East. It is difficult to see why this one would be any different.

Details of Donald Trump’s proposed security alliance in the Middle East have been murky and contradictory. In May last year, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin wrote that the Trump administration was exploring setting up an Arab NATO that would include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. The alliance would aim to coordinate efforts against terrorism and counter Iran’s activity in the region. Rogin, however, put the White House’s admission “that many of the details of how the new alliance will operate remain to be worked out” in euphemistic terms, glossing over the stark differences that separate the foreign-policy interests of these states from one another.

Meanwhile, some Arab media outlets have speculated that the security alliance would also include Israel. Its objective, they claim, would be to encourage Arab states to sponsor a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict involving major political and territorial concessions by the Palestinians. In return, they claim the US and Israel would help counter Iran’s influence in the region.

But the proposal, like its Cold War-era predecessor, is destined to fail. In 1955, the US and the UK sponsored a Middle East security alliance, known as the Baghdad Pact, that brought together Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. By doing so, the US hoped to contain the Soviet Union along its southern flank in the region. However, because of its members’ conflicting priorities, the alliance was never effective at deterring conflict or aiding its members, as Pakistan bitterly realized during its conflicts with India in 1965 and 1971. Finally, in 1979, the alliance was dissolved, as both Iraq and Iran were by then rocked by domestic instability that brought to power regimes hostile to the US.

Unfortunately, domestic instability and conflicting priorities continue to be endemic features of Middle East states. Aside from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Egypt has seen power shift hands between Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military since 2011, amid mass street protests and bloodshed every time. In Jordan, tough living conditions exacerbated by a massive influx of Syrian refugees drove people to the streets in June, prompting the king to halt a hike in taxes while forcing the government to resign.

Beyond instability, the four states have often taken opposing positions on the region’s major conflicts. In the case of Syria, Egypt’s government under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has stood with Bashar Al Assad, while Saudi Arabia has thrown its weight behind the rebels, with help from the US. On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Jordan has complicated a US-led effort to reach a settlement that many believe is quietly backed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. In January, King Abdullah II of Jordan opposed Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, implying that the outlines of the US’s plan for a feeble Palestinian state were beyond what he and his people would consider acceptable.

The likelihood of such an alliance failing is therefore compounded if one takes Israel into account as a potential member. Due to its heavy-handed measures and illegal settlement policy, Israel’s right-wing government has made any effort at peace immensely complicated. As a result, most Arab citizens continue to consider the Zionist state as an enemy. Short of what could be considered a fair settlement for the Palestinians – a minute possibility in an Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu – it is still difficult to see Arab populations acquiescing to a formal alliance with Israel. Arab governments could ignore the anger on their streets and press ahead with the plan regardless, but they would do so at their own peril, risking a greater discontent that Iran could exploit under the pretext of protecting the Palestinian cause.

But what if, despite these obstacles, a Middle East NATO-style alliance comprised of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps Israel were to exist? Its unintended consequences, in my view, could be devastating. Security alliances, after all, intensify the insecurity of states they are meant to balance, and may even precipitate countervailing alliances in the region. At the same time, they may also embolden their members to engage in military adventurism, entangling their allies in armed conflict. In a region where a massive arms race is already underway, security alliances risk turning limited volatile situations into major inter-state conflict.

Finally, the Trump administration’s talk of a Middle East NATO may be just that, talk. If nothing else, it reassures US allies in the Gulf and conveys the impression to his domestic constituents that regional states will shoulder a greater part of the burden of regional security. But for Trump to translate his proposal into reality, the US would have to overcome considerable challenges. Given the state of the region, the prospect of a NATO-style alliance in the Middle East seems neither likely nor desirable.

Hasan Alhasan is a PhD researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.

AFP PHOTO/JANEK SKARZYNSKI