According to Defense News, an Arab NATO would consist of six Gulf states, i.e. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, plus Egypt and Jordan.
The commander of the Royal Bahraini Air Force, Maj. Gen. al-Khalifah, said that this is an American idea which was approved by the Arab Gulf countries, “but didn’t take shape yet.” He expects this alliance to be successful, although “we are still at the beginning.”
Back in October, the Bahraini foreign minister said that the Gulf security alliance could be formed by next year.
Defense News sees at least one sign of progress there, as the Gulf countries are already involved in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that fights against Houthi rebels, mainly by carrying out airstrikes.
“We have been sharing information between coalition fighters all along the operations [in Yemen], and we have been training alongside with the Gulf countries through joint exercises, and this enhances our capabilities,” al-Khalifah said.
Incompatible with Iran
On the other hand, there are clear and tangible challenges on the way to creating this new military alliance, not least of them being the issues of interoperability.
All the potential members operate different types of weapons and military equipment: the Egyptian Air Force operates the Russian MIG and the American F-16, while the Saudi Air Force has the American F-15SA and the European Eurofighter Typhoon, and the UAE is equipped with the F-16 and the French Mirage.
But the issue of interoperability is not the only impediment for creating an Arab NATO as the relations between Qatar and other Gulf countries have not been fully restored since 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar.
All eight potential members of the new military alliance have concerns related to Iran and Iranian-backed armed groups operating in numerous countries across the Middle East.
“Iran continues to cause risks to other nations and act as a destabilizing agent across this region. They aim to disrupt the balance of power and place at risk the livelihood of citizens,” Commander of the US Air Forces Central Command Lt. General Joseph Guastella said during the 2nd Manama Airpower Symposium.
According to Guastella, the experience of setting up and operating NATO itself could prove useful in establishing an Arab version of the alliance: “There is value in looking at what NATO has been able to do and the successes of an alliance that has guaranteed essentially stability for the region there for decades.”
Adding America and Israel into the mix
“People have been talking about an Arab NATO for several years now,” said Vladimir Sazhin, Senior Researcher at the Middle East Department of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. According to him, there are plans to get Israel to participate in the alliance that would bring together six monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Jordan.
However, instead of becoming a full-fledged member of the Arab NATO, Israel would supply intelligence to the alliance. The US is expected to participate in a similar manner, providing all the necessary resources without officially joining the organization.
“The idea to call it an ‘Arab NATO’ is something journalists came up with. In all of the relevant areas, this potential new alliance will be very much inferior to NATO. I don’t believe that it will ever reach the level of NATO,” said Sazhin.
According to him, even if the bloc is ever established, it is unlikely to resemble NATO at all. There may be some formal organizational structures established, but there are serious doubts regarding their effectiveness and efficiency. Ultimately, all we see is propaganda and media noise, and not much actual progress, Sazhin said.
Just how capable the Gulf monarchies are in terms of setting up a united front against Iran remains to be seen. “I very much doubt they would go through with this without the support of other countries. There is a very broad range of attitudes towards Iran among the Gulf states,” Sazhin stressed.
On one end of the spectrum, there is Saudi Arabia, on the other – countries like Qatar and Oman. The last two are not particularly anti-Iran. As for economic relations, the United Arab Emirates have very close ties with Iran. Tehran’s relationship with Abu Dhabi provides it an opportunity to evade US financial and economic sanctions, the expert stated.
“I think that if there were an Arab military organization then it would most likely be lacking in efficiency and decision-making, but would be very active publicity-wise,” Vladimir Sazhin said.
“A summit with US President Donald Trump and monarchs of the Gulf countries was expected to take place back in autumn this year in the United States. It was believed that the main topic on the agenda would be the creation of a strategic Middle East alliance that experts already call an Arab NATO for the sake of simplicity,” Elena Suponina, adviser to the director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, said.
That summit was postponed until the first half of 2019. One of the reasons was the scandal around the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi political analyst. It created an atmosphere that compelled the US to refrain from any discussions regarding strategic cooperation.
According to Suponina, that is not the only obstacle that stands in the way of creating such an organization. Firstly, relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are somewhat clouded; secondly, there is still too much turbulence in the region. The plans are in place, but it would be very difficult for the Americans to make them come true, Suponina believes.
Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that the US is not giving up on these plans since in the upcoming years the main goal of the US in the region will be to contain Iran. This is exactly why America pursues the creation of, if not a full-fledged military organization, then at least something very close to it. Even that kind of alliance would be very useful for the US, the expert thinks.
“Donald Trump’s idea is to form an Arab NATO that would include Arabian monarchies and – by a long stretch of the imagination – Israel. This idea may sound benevolent, but so do many other plans that are not meant to happen,” Evgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute for Middle East Studies, said.
Satanovsky believes that the new military alliance is meant to zero in on Iran. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia wants to establish that alliance. However, it is very unlikely that the US will succeed in convincing Israel to join the club. Israeli society will never accept that offer.
There is zero chance that an Arab NATO will become a reality, he said, adding that Israel doesn’t really need any military help from the Arab countries to fight Iran. The Arab armies do not constitute any significant military power nor they are organized enough to be a force others can rely on if it comes to that.
For the Arab countries, it is absolutely out of the question to be part of the same military alliance with Israel due to the kind of narrative that permeates their societies. The State Department and the White House – unsurprisingly – do not understand this, Satanovsky claims.
It is absolutely clear that Saudi Arabia seeks to create an Arab or Islamic military alliance and to be at the helm. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has already damaged relations with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, cut relations with Qatar, and raised tensions between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – all in pursuit of this goal.