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Plans for an ‘Arab NATO’ gathering momentum

With Arab nations’ militaries working more closely together than ever before and the political situation ripe, speculation abounds that we will witness the birth of the so-called “Arab NATO” this month.

The idea for such a security alliance was conceived by the Obama administration. When Barack Obama gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, he was clear about Arab requirements to protect themselves. What the Obama administration sought, especially through former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, was to stand up a united Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) mechanism for enhanced security.

But the crisis between Gulf states that erupted during the late Obama era in 2014 led to a stalling of the idea. The Gulf states began driving their own policies and saw the requirement to enter Yemen to protect themselves from a Hezbollah-like state on Saudi Arabia’s borders. Now, because of the second Qatar crisis, the plan to accelerate an Arab solution for a regional military alliance is a key project being pushed for by US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Importantly, the proposed Arab NATO, tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), is fully supported by senior Gulf officials. At the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate on Sunday, UAE Minister of State Anwar Gargash said: “The UAE, along with Arab states, is increasingly playing a role to address security challenges in the region. We are pushing alongside the US to form a strategic alliance to counter these issues.” Bolton’s meeting with the UAE security leadership on Monday was related to moving toward a greater cohesion on the Arab NATO issue.

An Arab military alliance, and how it begins to coalesce, is going to have to take the lessons of Yemen to heart in terms of its operations and operational capacity. The complexities of the Yemeni situation equal those of some other conflicts that might take place in the Middle East and North Africa in the foreseeable future. Some say an Arab alliance will have to tackle Libya in a year’s time.

The use of air power by an Arab NATO to achieve strategic and tactical goals may be grounded in American and NATO operations. Its capabilities may be used to focus on maritime security and potential land operations, including counter-terrorism, as already demonstrated in Yemen. Air power lessons learned come from a number of operations, including NATO’s over Libya and contributions to the US’ Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. Contributions to humanitarian aid are also part of the emerging mix.

The seeds of the Arab NATO have been sewn over the past few years. Up to 10 states have participated in bilateral and multilateral exercises, either in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or in maritime sea lanes in either the Arabian Gulf or the Red Sea. There are also regular joint Saudi-Pakistani Al-Samsam military exercises conducted in the Kingdom to help contribute to that bilateral defense relationship. Here it is important to mention the anti-Iran Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), as its active commander is retired Gen. Raheel Sharif, who is visiting member countries to coordinate counter-terror operations. IMCTC is an extremely active organization with three related counter-terrorism platforms in Riyadh.

Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s naval, air and ground units are conducting ongoing war games in western Egypt, with delegations from Morocco and Lebanon participating as observers. These military exercises, named “Arab Shield 1,” are significant as never before have these six Arab states conducted joint military exercises. It’s an important start that only occurred after Pompeo met with fellow foreign ministers to discuss the launch of the alliance.


Nonetheless, the proposed Arab NATO alliance has, at least on paper, much potential to reshape the region’s security architecture, given Egypt’s military strength and the financial ability of Gulf states, who would want to preserve the status quo in the Middle East amid threats from destabilizing actors.

Doctrinal issues will be paramount in the new Arab alliance if and when it begins to operate. Arab militaries have historically learned doctrine and tactics from Western and Russian institutions. Now, there is a push for doctrinal manuals in Arabic. That said, regardless of outside influences, the Arab approach to warfare is distinct and will be evident in the intended results as the group gels in 2019. By taking the lead, Saudi Arabia is putting together a unified force that re-establishes the historical greatness of Arab armies despite Western discontent.

But there is a point at which interoperability issues come to mind, with Russian-made equipment in joint operation with Western-manufactured technology. This issue will limit future Arab military alliances unless adjustments are made, given Russia’s largesse in the region in terms of arms sales.

With the US Congress gunning against Gulf Arab interests in 2019, combined with other domestic US events, there may be a point where the Arab NATO idea may get delayed. Yet the momentum for creating such an organization now has an organic urgency. The tendency in the region is to coordinate across a plane of threats and to go after them across a spectrum of operations.

Arab Shield 1 is a good example of what is going to become the norm in terms of exercises, as long as there is a security requirement to bond together against regional threats. The rush to finish strategic and tactical objectives by coalition forces in Yemen will allow the region’s militaries to focus more on the Arab NATO or MESA concept as part of the new regional architecture. Other countries besides America may support such an idea if Washington is unavailable.

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