Mixed Reactions to the Proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

October 9, 2018

More than a year since the agreeing in principle on the creation of a regional security alliance, Gulf Cooperation Council member states, plus Egypt and Jordan, have expressed their continued desire to make the promise a reality. The Middle East Security Alliance (MESA), as it is officially called, is said to be modelled after the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO), with the United States acting as the guarantor of peace and stability. There is much that is unknown about both the final composition and security guarantees offered, or even the extent of the US role in the proposed alliance. What is clear, however, is that even before its creation, the ‘Arab NATO’ as some have called it, has already elicited strong reaction from commentators and observers in the region.

Discussion on the proposed alliance were first reported by the Saudi Gazette in May 2017, in the aftermath of the Arab Islamic American Summit, which “unveiled plans to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance with the objective of establishing peace and security in the region and the world. The process of establishing the Riyadh-based Alliance with the participation of many nations will be completed by 2018, according to a communique, called ‘Riyadh Declaration’, adopted at the end of the summit in Riyadh…. The leaders emphasized that the summit represents a historic turning point in the relations of Arab and Muslim worlds with the United States. They voiced satisfaction over the candid and fruitful atmosphere in which the summit was held and the uniformity in viewpoints and visions of both sides toward major regional and global issues.”

Reflecting on the recent developments and announcement of a follow-up meeting hosted by the United States later this month, Gulf News’s Habib Toumi notes that the proposed alliance, should it become reality, will have the “remit of the security and military alliance being prepared in the Gulf and Middle East will include the Arabian Gulf, the Arab Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and the three waterways that link them – the Hormuz Strait, Bab Al Mandab and the Suez Canal. The mission of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) will include monitoring navigation in these areas and tackling the illegal smuggling of weapons and which violate UN Security Council resolutions…. To the north, the alliance will monitor the military supply lines used by Iran along the Jordanian border (Al Tanf US military base on the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border). It will also support local forces contributing to monitoring any shipments of weapons from Iran to pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Lebanon.”

Others though are not convinced both about the necessity as well as the purpose of the proposed security alliance. For example, Daily Sabah’s Beril Dedeoğlu asserts that “When one talks about building a security pact, the first question is ‘for what?’ The answer is relatively easy, as theoretically speaking, every country will say it is in favor of regional peace, political stability [and] joint fight against terrorism. Maybe the second question is a more critical one: ‘against whom?’ Once you try to answer that question, one notices that military pacts are not very peaceful gatherings. It is not hard to understand that MESA is being crafted against Iran, so even to create such an alliance is a call for war.”

Similarly, Iranian observers Mohammad Ghaderi & Javad Heirannia have spoken out against the ‘Strategic Alliance’ in an op-ed published by Tehran Times, where they dismiss the likelihood that the alliance will be a success and question its viability since “Each of the participating countries in the coalition has its own complexities in terms of political considerations, manpower, logistics capabilities, and leadership which have raised doubts and concerns about the coalition idea…. The formation of security regimes and security convergence requires a high level of coherence and understanding between the constituent members of those regimes regarding security threats and ways to counter them…. The coalition with the Arab League not only won’t help the Persian Gulf security order but will add to the ‘security riddle’ in the region. What will be the upshot of this coalition is primarily the sale of more weapons by the United States to these countries, which is not helpful to peace or security.”

Even though Jordan is mentioned as one of the likely members of the proposed MESA, Jordan Times’s Hassan Barari believes the country would be better off outside the alliance than acquiesce to US anti-Palestinian policies: “Jordan’s threat perception has little to do with Iran and everything to do with Israel’s rejection to allow the Palestinians to exercise their right to self-determination. And this begs the following question: why would Jordan agree to take part in this alliance when the American administration has intentionally undermined Jordan’s recipe for peace and stability across the Jordan…. Perhaps, Jordan is better off to shun regional alliances that do not focus on the root causes of instability in the region. I will state the obvious and say one more time that Israel’s expansionist foreign policy is a mortal danger for Jordan, not Iran.”

Farzad Farhadi sounds equally critical of the ‘Arab NATO’ as he puts it and serves up a number of issues that concern and should be of greater priority to the countries in the region rather than showing “more hostility towards Iran…. [After] all these years, why did not you hear about a joint Arab defense treaty against Tel Aviv? The Israeli’s attack on al-Aqsa mosque is increasing in large numbers and Jewish settlements have expanded. Why does not this provoke any reaction? The new generation of Arabs is faced with a lot of dangerous dilemma illustrated in fake phrases such as counteracting terrorism and preventing the spread of Iranian influence. But it cannot conceal the fact that occupation, settlement, blockade and racism constitute a major threat to Palestine, the interests of Jordan and Arab security.”

However, for many it is Iran’s policies and actions that are often considered the main cause of the current instability and violence in the region. And, as The National’s Damien McElroy writes, it is perhaps not surprising that Iran and its supporters have “decided that the alliance would represent a challenge to its interests, despite those involved in the discussions making no such noises. Iran has for years peddled a straw man in regional diplomacy. It has repeatedly called for a regional security architecture. It is a well-worn tactic to propose a framework that has no practical or feasible purpose, while pursuing an individual agenda. It has made this empty demand while using proxies in a range of regional states to destabilize those countries and expand its own influence…. It is not just Yemen where Iran is projecting beyond borders. Syria and Iraq are also joining the list of what could be called Iran’s unsinkable aircraft carriers in the region. Faced with an increasingly coherent front orchestrated by Iran, an entity such as Mesa could be part of the antidote. It would need internal consensus consistent with the scale of the challenge and the means of tackling it.”

Arnab Neil Sengupta, in an op-ed for Khaleej Times, is also pretty clear about what he considers to be the proposed alliance’s main function, i.e. to force Iran to change its policies, by the threat or use of force if necessary: “[T]he regime in Tehran is amenable neither to constructive criticism nor democratic accountability. But once again, to treat the Islamic republic as a problem to be managed chiefly through negotiations and concessions, not as a regional power culpable for its ‘malign influence’, would be both wrong-headed and naive. In this context, the Trump administration’s plan to establish a Middle East Strategic Alliance – ‘anchored by a united GCC, to advance prosperity, security, and stability’ – could not have crystallized a moment too soon.”

Still, even for the supporters of the MESA, there are concerns about the United States’ willingness to extend a firm NATO-like protection and commitment to the GCC, Egypt, and Jordan. That at least is Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg’s concern, as he observes in a commentary for Arab News: “The big question that regional powers ask is what sort of commitment is the US ready to make? That has to be spelled out. Over the years, the US has made fairly strong statements about its commitment to Gulf security. However, because those statements were not part of a formal agreement, they were viewed in the region as temporary and non-binding…. The Trump administration has, however, been quite forceful in expressing its commitment to regional security, and as such may be the closest among recent administrations to considering a formal commitment. With such a step, the MESA framework would be robust enough to allow its members to count on each other, not only in collective security but also in economic partnership and political coordination.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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