The Trump administration’s quiet push for a Saudi-led “Arab NATO,” tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), is emblematic of an increasingly destabilizing U.S. policy toward the Middle East. With a summit provisionally scheduled in Washington on October 12-13, this will not be the first time this year that the United States will be seen taking up a confrontational and militarized approach to counter Iran, a country the President has infamously termed as the ‘axis of evil’ in the region. After the first round of heavy-handed sanctions announced against the state earlier in 2018, an even more damaging second round of U.S. sanctions, reinstated after Washington pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, is expected to take effect in November.
The proposed Arab bloc to be announced as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing Iran policy would include the six Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan; but it is the increasing US-Saudi alliance that is expected to map out the strategy for the alliance. With the U.S. military industry complex set to receive huge dividends from the lucrative trade and military deals with its oil-rich Arab counterparts to beef up efforts against Iran, there is growing concern amongst defense analysts that an alliance of such a nature could potentially result in greater chaos for the Middle East, potentially impacting the European Union with a fresh wave of refugee influx.
What is a bigger and more frustrating factor is that the Middle East, tarnished from its recent bloodied conflicts with the Islamic States and other peripheral Salaafi -Wahabist terrorist groups, is at a grave risk of being subjected to the same chaos that it has barely avoided. It was only in September 2017 that Iraq’s capital city Raqqa and adjoining areas of Syria were declared free of ISIS presence after a four year joint military effort. An approximate five million refugees have known to be uprooted, and over six million Syrians are estimated to be internally displaced. The result was a mass refugee and migration crisis in Europe that set forth populist ideals like Brexit to become a defining force in European politics.
Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi accuse Iran of destabilizing the region, fomenting unrest in some Arab countries through proxy groups and increasingly threatening Israel. How the Arab NATO-style alliance could immediately affect Iran’s growing influence in the region remains unknown. However Washington and its Sunni Muslim allies have common interests in ongoing conflicts such as in Syria and Yemen. What may be another, more powerful uniting factor is the protection of Gulf oil shipping routes along which much of the global supplies are transported.
However, even at the introductory phase, there are many reasons why the Trump regime’s optimism to tackle Iranian influence via crippling economic sanctions and concentrated militaristic measures are bound to fail.
For one, the perennial problem with the U.S. decision-makers is the inability to see things from other actors’ perspective. In denying agency to regional actors and failing to account for their interests and preferences, Washington’s misguided policies end up harming U.S. long-term interests.
The Trump regimes consistent depiction of Iran as the sole catalyst for the instability permeating the Middle East region has meant that Iranian threat has been hyperbolically inflated to unrealistic levels. In his statements on the administration’s Iran Strategy in October, 2017, President Trump described Iran as a ‘dictatorship’,” holding a “sinister vision for the future” and most notably “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
Additionally, the 2017 National Security Strategy saw Iran as a “rogue state”, which is “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies and brutalize its own people.”
One of the biggest collateral damages of an Arab NATO would be the affirmation and reinvigoration of an ideological and religious divide in the Middle East, establishing a polarized “unified Sunni coalition” against Iran’s threatening ‘Shi’ite’ expansionism.
Recently, Analyst Isabel Wang poignantly noted:
“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.”
This inflammatory narrative thus is at the risk of defining the alliance as countries involved by the proxy war of Saudi Arabia against Iran such as in Yemen or Iraq and presents a religious dichotomy of Sunni versus Shiite Muslims.
Statistically while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are nations with dominant Sunni populations, Bahrain and Iraq as well as minorities in Kuwait are predominantly Shia populations.
Recent history dictates that the U.S. has actively pursued policies that threaten the precarious balance of sectarianism in the Middle Eastern societies.
Today in Iraq and Syria, Iranian influence has infiltrated the post-ISIS fabric of these states thanks in part to the U.S. sectarian policy of backing Salafi jihadists.
In December 2017, the Hoover Institution, noted “Iran thrives in the Levant on weakened states threatened by Sunni radicalism,” and that resultantly, “theocratic Iran became the protector of non-Sunnis and even secular Sunnis against jihadism.”
Thus even though the US may have focused upon the problems of Shia sectarianism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it appears that it undermines concerns about Sunni sectarian bigotry. This selective ideology then treats Shias as the kuffaar (unbelievers or infidels), rejecters of Sunni orthodoxy and a target for Takfirist Jihadist terrorism.
At the same time, the creation of a militaristic organization in the region led by the United States allows them a neat political cover to sponsor intervention in the Middle East under the guise of a narrative that pins the blame unequivocally on a single state’s belligerence.
Political analysts debate whether this move towards an Arab NATO is part and parcel of Trump’s new “America First” policy, where the White House primes its allies to play a more active role in confronting regional security threats. A press briefing in 2017 by the then U.S. National Security Advisor McMaster stated that the idea was to “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.”
However, the most visible form of a U.S. arms package to any Arab state under the Trump regime thus far can be seen in the form of the US-Saudi deal, which Trump announced last year in May in Riyadh. The official estimate for the defense deal is up to US$98-US$128 Billion in arms sales and has the potential to reach US$350 Billion in total over 10 years. The consequence of this has been the escalation of renewed, deadly offensive in Yemen, where the Saudi state backed by U.S. special forces has been embroiled in a fight against Shia Houthi rebels, creating what was termed by the United Nations ‘the worst manmade humanitarian disaster of all time.’
Yemen then presents a viable case study of U.S. zero-sum world view and of complete ideological and military backing in a war which has only exacerbated the severity of the humanitarian crisis and to date, has no political end in sight.
However, history attests to the fact that the Middle East is no easy terrain to maneuver. The Middle East has already made many attempts such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to establish regional alliances, yet each has been undermined by the fractious geopolitics of the region. The GCC’s abrupt demise at the hands of a diplomatic conflict with Qatar has meant that divergent perspectives on foreign policy issues will inevitably resurface again to stand in the Arab NATO’s way. The underlining tensions between the policies of Saudi Arabia and UAE and their disagreements over the handling of the war in Yemen should offer a warning to the Trump administration’s misplaced idealism in a harmonious Middle East alliance. More significantly, Western policymakers must pay heed to the fact that the Middle East cannot be simplified into a dichotomous narrative of a neatly packaged Arab alliance against the hostility of Iran. Nationalistic, short-term parochial goals of each Arab state’s own domestic policies will always trump any overarching alliance, which offers little more to unite than shared animosity for Tehran’s geopolitical interests.