Even with closer Saudi-US ties, Arab NATO idea was downright 'dangerous'

Key Points
  • NATO-like Arab military union could focus on threats from Iran and terrorism.
  • But the concept is seen as flawed and could inflame sectarianism in the region.
Saudi soldiers march during Abdullah's Sword military drill in Hafar Al-Batin, near the border with Kuwait.
Faisal Al Nasser | Reuters

There was much hype leading up to President Donald Trump's Saudi Arabia visit that he would discuss an "Arab NATO" military alliance, but in the end the idea never was mentioned by name.

"I think it was like a trial balloon that someone in the administration probably sent up to see kind of how people gauge it or how people would respond to it," said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based in Washington.

The idea was that a military union between Arab states would help reduce the dependence on U.S. forces for protection against threats from Iran and terrorism.

Middle East experts believe maybe it was a good thing, however, that the concept wasn't acted on because they say there is still much suspicion, distrust and disagreement among Arab nations. Also, they suggest a broad military alliance probably wouldn't work in practice and could cause more harm by inflaming sectarianism in the region.

"There are a whole lot of difficulties with that kind of alliance formation," said Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. "It's a dangerous direction to take because it cements the divide between Iran and the Arab countries."

At the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Trump on his first foreign visit as president called on leaders of some 55 Muslim-majority countries to "conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism." He also told them "we can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong — and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfills their part of the burden."

The U.S. also announced a huge weapons deal with the Saudis worth about $350 billion over 10 years, which was seen by the Trump administration as not only a jobs creator at home but a way to bolster the kingdom's defenses against Iran and terrorism.

According to Trump's Sunday remarks, the U.S. has started discussions with some Muslim nations "on strengthening partnerships, and forming new ones, to advance security and stability across the Middle East and beyond."

"These countries in the region are very suspicious of multilateral institutions," said Coffey. "The best way for the U.S. to do this is by having very strong bilateral relationships with the countries in the region."

The idea of a Middle East military alliance isn't new and was promoted by the British in the 1950s as the Central Treaty Organization, or Baghdad Pact, to promote shared military and economic goals. The members included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the U.K. It ended in 1979 with the Iranian revolution.

The closest thing now to an Arab NATO is the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member alliance divided over how to deal with Iran. Member nations include Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Yemen sought help from the GCC last year to oust the Iran-backed Houthis and today the Saudi-led war has been blamed for at least 10,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. Some GCC members such as Oman were neutral on the conflict but have been accused of helping Iran smuggle arms into the war zone.

"There are great divisions within the Arab world, even within the GCC you see some Gulf states more worked up about Iran than others," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at Rand, a Santa Monica, California, think-tank.

Added Kaye: "The Saudis and Emirates are more concerned about growing Iranian influence. The Omanis and Kuwaitis are less concerned. So you see fissures there."

An Arab military alliance also presents a problem perhaps for Israel. Some of the Arab countries, such as Jordan and Egypt, have formal ties with Israel so would Israel have any role or be an outsider?

Then again, there's also the question of what role Iraq would have in any Arab military alliance since the Baghdad government has become closer to Tehran despite pressure from some other Arab countries.

Experts say Iran also has tried to play up the divisions within the Arab world and Russia also has played a role too in stoking friction in the region.

At the same time, the region is dominated by autocratic rule with leaders often more concerned about internal threats than external ones such as Iran or the Islamic State. There have been some democratic elections but it is still rare among states in the Arab world.

"All these countries have internal domestic vulnerabilities," said Kaye. "Sometimes that outweighs the external threats.