President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia on May 21 signals a lot of things. The religious center of the Muslim world was the first stop on the president’s first trip abroad. The largest arms deal in the US history was signed while the American-Sunni Muslim alliance was announced to be renewed after the period of relative «nothingness» or stagnation during President Obama’s tenure. Donald Trump addressed more than 40 Muslim leaders at the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh.
The president called on the leaders to unite to «drive out the terrorists, adding that Muslim countries had to «fulfill their part of the burden» — not just wait for American intervention. Sounds very much the calls for the US NATO partners to increase their share of the burden. The eradication of Islamic State is presented as the main objective, but the containment of Iranian influence in the region topped the agenda.
The Saudi capital was decorated with images of the US president and the Saudi King side by side. The slogan said together the two will prevail indicating the renewed bond between the economic partners and military allies opposing the common enemy – Iran – together with the Arab Gulf States and Israel, which was the next stop in the president’s trip. Jordan and Egypt have a history of constructive relationship with the Jewish state while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) formally view it as an enemy despite reports of clandestine contacts.
In the headline address, Trump signaled his intention to end engagement with Iran and declared his commitment to Sunni Arab nations, signaling a return to the policy of building alliances, regardless of differences in approaches concerning certain issues or human rights records. The US administration has made a choice, picking a side in the geopolitical struggle. «From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,» Trump told dozens of Muslim heads of state attending the summit.
The idea of an «Arab NATO» is not new. The Arab (Sunni) military alliance is until now seen as part of a continuing trend in the Middle East. Since 2013, Saudi Arabia has been actively pushing for increased regional military coordination. An attempt to create a response force of 40 thousand was made in 2015 to bring together troops from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and a few other Gulf nations. The concept never came into fruition because of internal disputes.
Some attempts have been made, such as the February 2016 Saudi Arabia-led massive military exercise, called Northern Thunder, which included military assets and troops of around 20 different countries. The only functional participation however has come from the GCC states, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan but it was a step on the way to integrating Sunni Muslim states’ forces.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have either established or are preparing three military bases strategically located around the western shore of the Red Sea and on the Gulf of Aden to counter Iran. In January 2017, the Egyptian navy established a naval force in the Red Sea. The Red Sea force will utilize naval equipment and helicopters to be acquired from Russia.
This year, the idea to revive the project was discussed during the visit by Crown Prince, Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (March 13-17) and by Egyptian President al-Sisi (April 3) to Washington. In both cases, the sides agreed upon the need to establish an Arab analogue of NATO to deter the growing influence of Iran in the region.
Initial participants in the coalition would include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan, with the United States playing an organizing and support role while formally staying outside the alliance it would lead in practice. For the Arab countries involved, the alliance would have a NATO-style mutual-defense component under which an attack on one member would be treated as an attack on all, though details are still being worked out.
The idea of forming a military alliance is bolstered by the defense cooperation deal the US president signed with the Saudi King Salman, pledging $110 billion effective immediately and up to $350 billion over 10 years. The largest military package includes Littoral Combat Ships, THAAD missile defense systems, tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, bombs and munitions, communications, and cybersecurity technology.
The concept is seen as a way to strengthen the US standing in the region and make the allied states increase their financial contribution to regional security. The deal will create tens of thousands of new jobs in the US defense industry and make the future bloc dependent on American arms while keeping other arms exporters away.
The US plans are extremely hard to implement. Arab countries have always been riddled with disagreements. The key actors – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan or Egypt – have different strategies and goals. The Middle East has seen a number of attempts at joining military forces since WWII: the Arab League’s Joint Defence Pact, the Middle East Command, the Middle East Defense Organization, the Baghdad Pact (officially known as the Middle East Treaty Organization), or indeed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). None of them succeeded due to internal and external strive.
Arab leaders again failed to reach a consensus on Iran at the Arab League Summit in Jordan on March 29, 2017. The divisions prevented them from including any direct condemnation of Iran for its «expansionism» in the Middle East, despite great efforts by Saudi Arabia.
The Arab NATO has a long way to go to become a factor to reckon with. Troops from Sunni Muslim states could become part of the equation in Syria in case they contribute into multinational forces in control of the de-escalation zones. The Sunni-populated areas would be the right places for them to be deployed. This would be a real contribution into regional stability.
In this case, they wouldn’t have to oppose Iran but rather coordinate activities with it carrying out the same peacekeeping mission. To do it they’ll need an actor which does not take sides in the Sunni-Shia rift and can be a connecting link and a mediator, if need be. With the US taking an overtly hostile stance on Iran, hardly anybody but Moscow is fit for the role.
In Astana, Russia not only offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but that it has even hosted some discussions between them. It could be the latest diplomatic player looking to end the two-year war in Yemen. It’s already mediating to end the conflict in Libya. Moscow is the most suitable Middle East mediator as it talks to all sides, except the jihadists. It can help Riyadh and Tehran agree to delineate and respect each other’s spheres of influence in the Middle East region. The United States, by contrast, is not on speaking terms with a number of Middle Eastern actors, like Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen etc.
If the goal is to put an end to regional conflicts, the mediated diplomatic efforts will be much more efficient than the attempts to create an Arab NATO – a loose association of states dominated by the United States with its long history of failed involvement in the Middle Eastern affairs.