Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam describes a game-changing scenario
The repeated reports emanating from many sources point out that there is fire behind smoke. Such consistent reports often billed as a middle eastern NATO certainly have substance in them as the groundwork of a broader nexus between stakeholders of the Middle East are not just figment of imagination. There is a lot of juice in such speculative conjecturing as the fast-changing conditions on the ground in the region now appear to be going towards logical conclusion. It is common knowledge that the friction-ridden Middle East is fast coming to realisation that a continuous state of conflict and animosity cannot be maintained endlessly. It now is becoming clear that a thaw is taking place in the region spearheaded by the leading countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel. There is a strong indication that the apparent collaboration may well develop into a kind of NATO alliance with security angle being predominant.
The reports in this connection point out that King Abdullah II of Jordan made headlines when he told journalists that he would support a military alliance in the Middle East that was similar to NATO. Giving an interview to US media outlet CNBC he stated that all parties are coming together with a view of determining the ways to help each other. The Jordanian king is not the only source mentioning about a Middle Eastern joint platform as Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz has also stated that Israel had joined a new US-led network that he called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance, or MEAD. The reports then gained in prominence when a leading American newspaper reported on secret meetings held in Egypt that saw military officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain who met together to discuss cooperating on defence.
There are strong reasons for creating a joint cooperation platform as the US, a primary guarantor of security in the Middle East, has been slowly withdrawing from the region for several years now, Arabs are increasingly aware that their past bets on Western powers, especially the US, may not have been successful and therefore there is a need to start a different approach to dealing with regional problems so that required stability is achieved and economic conditions are improved. The fact that Israel is involved is also noteworthy. The underlying cause of Arab countries coming together as they harbour fears about an aerial attack from Iran and its proxies and they feel it important to become shareholders in Israel’s sophisticated air defense capabilities. In this context many analysts point out that the goal of this initiative may also be to integrate Israel into a military alliance in the Middle East. This would be a continuation of the improved contacts between Israel and its Arab neighbours that began with the signing of Abraham Accords in 2020 that became instrumental in normalising relations between Israel and some Arab nations.
In this connection many regional experts say that any such defensive alliance is most likely to include the states that already have a relationship of some sort with Israel. That includes the signatories to the Abraham Accords comprising the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco as well as Jordan and Egypt, countries that already have existing diplomatic ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait could also play a role in the alliance, and the US, widely seen as brokering such a deal, would certainly also be involved. Despite all of the conjecture, though, observers advised caution, mentioning that it was unlikely that the Middle East would see the emergence of a genuine NATO-style allegiance anytime soon. Many analysts opine that the idea of a Middle Eastern NATO is still too farfetched. It is pointed out that the idea of an Arab NATO has been put forward many times but it has never crystallized and probably may not in the short term.
There is a history of the US encouraging this kind of defence cooperation for decades such as in the 1950s, there was the Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO, formed to counter possible Soviet expansion in the region but it was never considered particularly effective and was dissolved in 1979. Most recently, the US government under former President Donald Trump presented a Middle East Strategic Alliance or MESA. The US under Barack Obama also had versions of such an alliance and the incumbent US President Joe Biden is expected to discuss this topic during his proposed visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is, however, mentioned that many causes have impeded development in this respect particularly the interoperability issues — that is, different countries use different weapons systems and planes. There are fears that bigger and better-armed countries, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, would dominate any alliance. Moreover, not every Arab country considers Iran as its greatest enemy as countries such as Egypt have varied political priorities.
The most potent impediment faced by wide scale cooperation in the region is the Israel-Palestine issue that continues to be a major stumbling block for Arab nations when it comes to cooperation with Israel. In this context, Saudi Arabia has refused to establish closer ties with Israel because of this and without Saudi-Israeli normalisation it would be quite difficult to progress. There are also still concerns and rivalries among many of the states in the Middle East, including between the Gulf countries. A defensive alliance like NATO would require sharing a lot of intelligence and information and for many of the states involved, that remains incredibly sensitive and they see it as impinging on their own sovereignty.
Though the ideal of an Arab NATO remains quite remote yet there are many recent developments that point out to future defence cooperation. It is often pointed out that parleys in this connection have centered on a niche topic of technical cooperation in aerial defence, things like synchronizing radars and developing a communication system to share early warning of an incoming threat and such specific aspects do not create much of controversy. As to whether this kind of cooperation might actually cause more problems if, for example, Iran saw it as a threat or thought its enemies were ganging up on it. The intent here is largely deterrent in nature and is intended to reassure the states of their own security in the face of attacks from Iran and its proxies.
This perception is given credibility by the fact that top military officials from Israel and Saudi Arabia have met in secret US-brokered talks to discuss defence coordination against Iran. In this connection it was reported that delegations from Riyadh, as well as Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt, met the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) chief of staff in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in March. The US was represented by the former head of US Central Command, whose area of responsibility was expanded under Donald Trump to include Israel. The unprecedented summit marks the first time Israeli officials have met with such a wide range of counterparts from the Arab world, with the aim of countering the shared threat of Tehran’s growing missile and drone capabilities. Israel has no formal diplomatic relations with either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, the region’s geopolitical heavyweight, which is vying for influence with Iran. TW