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Could There Ever Be a Middle East NATO?

Biden’s trip to the region showed that while many Arab nations want to collaborate with Israel, they don’t want to do it in public.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Saudi military jets take part in a drill.
Saudi military jets take part in a drill.
Saudi military jets take part in a drill on April 9, 2017. Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the run-up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this month, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” The idea of a Middle East NATO—a NATO-like military alliance among various configurations of states in the region—was floated as recently as the Trump administration but has thus far failed to materialize.

Given that the kings and autocrats of the region deeply mistrust each other, especially on matters of security and intelligence-sharing, it remains a far-fetched notion. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said such an alliance might require an “Article 5-like commitment from the U.S.”—referring to the principle that all NATO members must treat an attack against one as an attack on all—and that “Congress would never agree to such a treaty.”

But while creating a Middle East NATO remains out of the question, Abdullah’s statement reflected an optimism for Biden’s trip. Perhaps it would at least yield a regional air defense integration plan among Gulf countries and Israel. Even that smaller goal, though—which seemed achievable in light of recent U.S.-backed defense cooperation in the region—did not come to fruition. In large part, this is because Arab leaders are wary of joining hands publicly with Israel to create what would effectively be a military front against Iran.

In the run-up to U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this month, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” The idea of a Middle East NATO—a NATO-like military alliance among various configurations of states in the region—was floated as recently as the Trump administration but has thus far failed to materialize.

Given that the kings and autocrats of the region deeply mistrust each other, especially on matters of security and intelligence-sharing, it remains a far-fetched notion. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said such an alliance might require an “Article 5-like commitment from the U.S.”—referring to the principle that all NATO members must treat an attack against one as an attack on all—and that “Congress would never agree to such a treaty.”

But while creating a Middle East NATO remains out of the question, Abdullah’s statement reflected an optimism for Biden’s trip. Perhaps it would at least yield a regional air defense integration plan among Gulf countries and Israel. Even that smaller goal, though—which seemed achievable in light of recent U.S.-backed defense cooperation in the region—did not come to fruition. In large part, this is because Arab leaders are wary of joining hands publicly with Israel to create what would effectively be a military front against Iran.

Iran’s expansion in the region through militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has rattled some Arab nations so greatly that they have begun to see Israel, a historic enemy with superior military capabilities, as a potential defense ally. The Biden administration’s strategy has thus been to encourage defense cooperation among U.S. allies—including Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—while also attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

Although similar ideas have been discussed in the past under several U.S. presidents, the prospect of an air defense group has gained momentum in recent years as Saudi and Emirati cities and oil facilities, as well as U.S. bases and troops in the region, have come under more frequent drone strikes by Iran’s proxies. These drones are small and hard to intercept, so it’s only natural that defense cooperation is increasingly being considered.

The prospect of an air defense group has gained momentum in recent years.

In fact, defense cooperation to combat the Iranian drone threat is already taking place, the New York Times reported this month. In March 2021, Israel foiled an Iranian drone attack with help from an Arab nation—probably Jordan, the Times reported—when Israeli jets were allowed to use Arab air space to shoot down the drones.

Wider defense cooperation is on the rise as well. A year after Israel normalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain with the Abraham Accords in 2020, all three countries and the United States held their first joint naval drill. This February, Israel participated in U.S.-led naval drills with Saudi Arabia and Oman for the first time. Soon after, a senior Israel Defense Forces official was posted to Bahrain—the first time an Israeli officer has been stationed in an Arab country. Then, in March, military officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel came together in Egypt in secret to discuss a potential air defense alliance, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Then just days before Biden’s visit, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had joined other countries—which he did not name—in what he called the Middle East Air Defense alliance, a U.S.-led regional air defense group. According to Gantz, member countries would be sharing intelligence about incoming Iranian missiles and drones in order to warn each other about attacks. Expectations were high that an announcement on defense cooperation was imminent during Biden’s visit.

But all the talk amounted to little during the visit. The joint statement following Biden’s summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in Riyadh said GCC members and Washington would enhance “joint deterrence capabilities” but made no mention of a regional air defense mechanism including Israel.

As Lazar Berman aptly noted in the Times of Israel, “The much-discussed regional security alliance against Iran looks to be far less advanced than Israel would have hoped. Mentions of the framework during the visit were exceedingly vague, a far cry from a Middle Eastern NATO.”

Several analysts told Foreign Policy that the United States and Israel overestimated Arab nations’ willingness to publicly enter a defense alliance with Israel before a resolution to the Palestinian conflict. “Gulf countries don’t trust each other, and that is why such defense alliances have not materialized in the past despite U.S. attempts,” said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But now, Farouk said, “matters have been complicated further because the U.S. has added Israel to the mix. … Most GCC countries are not comfortable with publicly being a part of an alliance with Israel. Several Saudi officials have told me that they are not okay with it.”

Countries that fall under Iran’s sphere of influence could hardly be expected to enter any alliance with Israel—whether it’s an air defense alliance or something more comprehensive. Iraq’s parliament passed a law in May that made it illegal to ever normalize relations with Israel. Baghdad has been hosting rapprochement talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran and wants to emerge as a peacemaker in the region. Qatar was supported by Iran during the Saudi blockade and shares a gas field with Iran, which makes it impossible for Doha to join any defense alliance targeted at Tehran. Lebanon, which is home to Hezbollah, the most effective Iranian proxy, has formally adopted neutrality in regional conflicts (a stance Hezbollah opposes).

But even the UAE, the Arab nation that spearheaded normalization with Israel under the Abraham Accords, has been cautious about entering a multilateral defense coalition against Iran. Although it has collaborated on developing counter-drone systems with Israel, the UAE appears to be pursuing dual policies on Iran due in large part to its fear of economic consequences, since attacks on its cities by Iranian proxies have already damaged its reputation as a safe country for business. Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomatic advisor to the Emirati president, said the UAE will not be a part of any defense alliance “that sees confrontation as a direction.” A Middle East NATO, Gargash said, was a “theoretical” concept.

The Saudi government, too, is wary of being seen as cooperating with Israel, Indyk said, though behind closed doors it has often expressed a willingness to improve ties. “Riyadh does need some cover on the Palestinian issue. There is not much room for it at the moment, but maybe after Israeli elections things will change,” Indyk said.

Even though the U.S.-backed integrated defense system between Arab nations and Israel has not yet been announced, Indyk nonetheless believes “things are moving in the right direction.” An integrated air defense system with the United States is still part of an active conversation, Indyk and other experts say, but whether a coherent and public alliance will be formed depends on whether Iran embraces or abandons recent efforts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to mend ties.

For now, it suits Gulf countries to sit back and let Israel attempt to weaken Iran’s nuclear program and drone manufacturing abilities through covert warfare. As Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes, said: “For the Arab states, Israeli espionage, cyberattacks, and assassinations may look like the best way of delaying an actual conflict with Iran.”

 Twitter: @anchalvohra

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