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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

A 'NATO' for the Middle East?

June 30, 2022

Rumors of a new Middle Eastern military alliance are flying. They're significant because an "Arab NATO" may include Israel, signaling next steps in better ties between Israel and Arab neighbors. But are the rumors real?

Aircraft of the Al Fursan aerobatic team perform during the first World Defense Show in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 8, 2022..
The Saudi Arabian military is the best equipped among Gulf states and has over 300 fighter jetsImage: Wang Haizhou/Xinhua/picture alliance

Late last week, the king of Jordan made headlines when he told journalists that he would support a military alliance in the Middle East that was similar to NATO.

"I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO," King Abdullah II told US media outlet CNBC. "All of us are coming together and saying, 'How can we help each other?' … which is, I think, very unusual for the region."

Similar rumors about the creation of an "Arab NATO" also came from other quarters.

Earlier last week, Israel's defense minister, Benny Gantz, said Israel had joined a new US-led network that he called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance, or MEAD. Gantz did not specify which Arab nations might also be involved. International media outlets, including Reuters and The Associated Press, were unable to fully verify the Israeli announcement or the title.

Then at the start of this week, The Wall Street Journal reported on secret meetings held in Egypt that saw military officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain come together to discuss cooperating on defense.

Alliance for peace?

There are some good reasons for the creation of an "Arab NATO."

The US, a primary guarantor of security in the Middle East, has been slowly withdrawing from the region for several years now, Ahmed el-Sayed Ahmed, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told DW.

"Arabs are increasingly aware that their past bets on Western powers, especially the US, may not have been successful," he said. "Now there's a different approach to dealing with regional problems in order to achieve stability and improve the economy, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of [instability caused by] the Ukraine war. This attitude may best be described as the desire to have no problems in the region." 

The fact that Israel is involved is also noteworthy. Arab nations who fear aerial attack from Iran or Iranian proxies would like to share in Israel's sophisticated air defense capabilities.

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel.
The Israeli military say almost all missiles fired at it are intercepted by its advanced Iron Dome systemImage: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

And, Ahmed suggested, "the goal 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 neighbors that began with the so-called Abraham Accords in 2020, he said. The latter have led to a "normalization" of relations between Israel and some Arab nations.

What would an 'Arab NATO' look like?

Experts say 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 — 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. 

Graphic showing relations in Middle East

Despite all of the conjecture though, observers advised caution, telling DW that it was unlikely that the Middle East would see the emergence of a genuine NATO-style allegiance anytime soon.

"There is a greater push towards broader regional cooperation at the moment," agreed Becca Wasser, a fellow for the defense program at CNAS, the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. "But I still think that this idea of an 'Arab NATO' is a bridge too far."

"The idea of ​​an 'Arab NATO' has been put forward many times," the Al-Ahram Centre's Ahmed noted. "But to this day, it has never crystallized, and I think that, at least in the short term, it will not."

Many attempts, many failures

The US — a major security guarantor in the Middle East, especially among the oil-producing Gulf states — has actually encouraged this kind of defense cooperation for decades.

For example, in the 1950s, there was the Central Treaty Organization, 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 touted a Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA. The US under Barack Obama also had versions of such an alliance. Current US President Joe Biden is expected to discuss this topic during his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel

In the past, none of the plans for an "Arab NATO" were ever particularly successful. And in fact, many of the same conditions that caused them to fail still exist today.

First meeting of CENTO in 1959.
Among others, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the UK and the US were all members of CENTO Image: London Express/dpa/picture-alliance

Logistically, there are 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. And not every Arab country sees Iran as its greatest enemy; others, like Egypt, have varied political priorities.

The Israel-Palestine issue also continues to be a major stumbling block for Arab nations when it comes to cooperation with Israel. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has refused to establish closer ties with Israel because of this.

"The purported members [of any such alliance] still don't trust one another, and the political relations among them are rough and uncertain," Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who focuses on Gulf state security, told DW. And, "without Saudi-Israeli normalization it would be quite difficult to progress."

Smokes and flames rise from Saudi Aramco’s Jeddah oil depot in Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, attacks by Iran-backed groups from out of Yemen knocked out around half of all Saudi oil productionImage: AA/picture alliance

It's not just Israel either: "There are also still concerns and rivalries among many of the states in the Middle East, including between the Gulf countries," added CNAS' Wasser.

A defensive alliance like NATO would require sharing a lot of intelligence and information, Wasser pointed out. "For many of the states involved, that remains incredibly sensitive and they see it as impinging on their own sovereignty."

'Smoke and mirrors'

However, even if a genuine "Arab NATO" remains doubtful, there have been some new developments in the region.

"I think that on paper, we'll see things like greater missile defense cooperation integrated across all these different states," CNAS' Wasser argued. "But that might be a bit of smoke and mirrors — cooperation without it being true cooperation."

For example, she suggested, fresh information might be routed to the US, and the US would pass it on. "We're more likely to see a sort of hub-and-spoke system that entails bilateral cooperation with the US, but in a multilateral context," Wasser said.

NATO leaders gather for a group photo at the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, June 29, 2022. .
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, was formed in 1949 and now has 30 membersImage: Kenny Holston/Pool/AP/picture alliance

The ECFR's Bianco agreed: "Discussions so far have centered around a niche topic of technical cooperation in aerial defense, things like synchronizing radars and developing a communication system to share early warning of an incoming threat," she explained. "This specific file is not one where there is too much controversy or disagreement."

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, Wasser remained optimistic.

"The intent here is largely deterrent in nature," she said. "It's intended to reassure the states of their own security in the face of attacks from Iran and its proxies. Of course," she added, "deterrence is in the eye of the beholder, so there is some small risk. But I don't think that risk is high at all because a true alliance, or a true defense pact, is unlikely to happen."

Edited by: Timothy Jones


Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East