Trump’s doctrine for the Middle East entails branding Middle East as a “troubled place” and Iran as a notorious thug of the region. For this, he has stepped up his efforts to push the idea of constituting a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), widely known as Arab NATO to counter the Iranian influence in the region, which forms the backbone of USA’s foreign policy of Middle East. Trump’s impulsive decision of pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive plan of action, a treaty to curb Iran’s nuclear arsenal and re-imposition of harsher sanctions has not diminished Iran’s footprint. US’S strenuous lobbying for a new anti- Iran block under the label of MESA, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and comprising of other Sunni allies like UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar along with the new proposed members Egypt Jordan, have the potential to address the “anti- Iran threat”. But the idea of creation of Arab NATO has an element of a fraction of fiction as the existing body of Gulf Co-operation Council comprising of all the Sunni members, contrary to the popular belief of acting as a unified Arab alliance, have been facing skirmishes below the surface due to the their different equation with Iran, and the sensitivity of sovereignty.
The Gulf- Co-operation Council was formed in1981 with Saudi Arabia at the forefront of the block as Iran’s cleric Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution called for the overthrow of a monarchical system and aimed at penetrating the Iranian theocratic model into the pulse of Middle East. Fearing their survival, the Sunni monarchs under the umbrella of Saudi Arabia established GCC. The GCC also stood as a unified bloc and supported the Sunni dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein in the long eight years Iran Iraq war ( 1980- 1988). But over the years, the fabric of the GCC has weakened due to the myriad of diverging foreign policies related to Iran’s role in the middle- east geopolitical order. At the heart of the deep rift of GCC, is the de facto leader of the GCC, i.e. Saudi Arabia. Riyadh “assumes” its leadership role of the Arab world from its mammoth geographical territory in the Gulf region, military might and by acting as a custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites. This role adorns the Saudi Kingdom will a stamp of “hegemonic legitimacy” over its tiny gulf neighbours of Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait who over the years have tried to preserve its sovereignty. On the other hand, the diplomatic traces of Saudi Arabia are blindly followed by UAE, Egypt and Bahrain and diluted the importance of GCC by reducing it into another anti-Iran venue which was otherwise formed to discuss the burning issues of the Arab world
Historically the smaller Gulf States have shifted between acquiescing to Saudi Arabia as a leader of the Arab gulf while cultivating relationships with the external powers to preserve their independence. The tremor of a threat to sovereignty was felt by tiny neighbours in 2011 when late Abdullah bin - Abdulaziz Al Saud used the GCC summit to advance a call for full political unity as a cover to aggressively put-forward its hawkish policy which is consistent with the aspiration of article 4 of the GCC Charter. This action would also lead the small emirate countries to compromise on their sovereignty. The responses from UAE and Kuwait were non- committal, while Oman voiced vociferous criticism suggesting that the call for such a political union would lead to its withdrawal from GCC.
Further, the Trump’s fiercely backed anti-Iran rhetoric serves as an ideal pretext for Iran’s arch enemies Saudi Arabia, UAE to over amplify the security concerns caused by Iran and to bring the rest of the GCC into line. Bahrain, a shite majority started to dance on the tunes of Saudi Arabia in the wake of Arab spring when the Iranian backed Shia rebellion, determined to dispose of the Sunni royal Al-Khalifa was crashed with the rolling of the Saudi troops in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia feared that Bahrain could be the next launch pad for the Iranian influence and inspire unrest elsewhere sent troops to Manama. Saudi exploited and tried to capitalise on the havoc of the Iranian expansionism to bring Qatar, Kuwait and Oman into its league. But unfortunately, its diplomatic move backfired as it failed to see Iran through the prism of its Gulf partners. They don’t view Iran as an existential threat but believe in not locking horns with neither Iran nor Saudi by playing the neutrality card.
Saudi Arabia’s reckless and incompetent move along with Egypt, Bahrain and UAE of imposing an air sea and land blockade on Qatar as it accused Qatar of cosying up to Iran and support for Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist organizations has pushed Qatar into the arms of Iran. Iran skilfully manoeuvred to exploit the wedge created within the GCC by opening its air space for Qatari air traffic and also by surging the food imports from Iran, thus helping Qatar to weather the storm of a blockade. Thus the anti- Qatar quartet failed in its mission to force Qatar to accept it demand which included the shutdown of the Doha funded Al Jazeera channel, ceasing the support for terrorist groups and cutting ties with Iran. Cutting ties with Iran would come with a heavy cost for Qatar. Iran is pivotal to Qatar’s economic and energy security interests as they share the largest gas field in the world North Dom/ South Pars. The blockade was followed by the trilateral transport agreement between Turkey Qatar Iran and the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran. The blockade was also the outcome of the anti- Saudi rhetoric launched by Al Jazeera which challenged the claim of power.
The cornerstone of GCC was built on a firm principle that none of the members would wrestle for power among each other, which was seen to be ‘violated’ by Qatar. But behind the blockade persists the long-running family rivalries. The “princely feud” began between Saudi Arabia and Qatar when Qatar’s former Emir Hamad al Thani, ousted his -pro-Saudi regime father Al Khalifa and followed a more independent approach after the largest natural gas field was found in 1971 during his rule, booming Qatar’s economy. Qatar freeing from the Saudi’s economic shadow, also assumed political independence and established connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islam movement, adopted in Qatar, abhorred by UAE and Saudi Arabia as it challenges to their system of dynasty rule The differences were also visible when Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain withdrew its ambassadors from Qatar in 2014 on the same issue and later resolved by Qatar singing a security agreement with the three members.
Qatar has gone one step ahead and also bid adieu to the Oil Petroleum Exporting Countries, which is hideously operated by Saudi Arabia, throwing a fierce sign of leading its diplomatic course in its way. But the Qatar-Iran blooming relations won’t take Qatar’s neutral efforts for a toss and lead to its withdrawal from GCC as it fears the complete boycott of its Sunni partners. The membership of GCC not only gives Qatar a religious and united identity but also streams billions of dollars of trade into Qatar. The Saudi’s severing of relations with Doha through blockade not only led to the birth of ‘odd Bedfellows” Iran- Qatar alliance but also put Oman and Kuwait in no man’s land as it was now expected to choose sides after Trump touted support for Saudi Arabia’s Qatari claim on Twitter.
But throughout history, Omani Sultan Qaboos has maintained a neutral political stance and struck a balance in conflicting interests since he came to power in 1970. Oman was seen as a venue for diplomatic discourse as it acted a diplomatic back channel for not only Teheran and Bagdad during the Iran Iraq war, but also hosted the secret negotiations between Iran and USA related to its nuclear missile file. The secret negotiations culminated successfully in the Joint Comprehensive plan of action which acted as a gateway for Iran to the world economy, giving it a golden chance to consolidate valuable relationships. These secret talks held in Muscat bypassed the GCC and Saudi Arabia and its allies which accused Oman of siding with Shia Iran. Out of the whole GCC block, only Sultan Qaboos shares sound relations with Iran as Iran’s ruler Shah backed Oman militarily to crash the anti -sultanate Dhofar rebellion, financially backed by Saudi Arabia. Hence Oman also adopted a neutral stance when the 1979 Iranian revolution acted as a curveball for the whole Sunni Arab world and also maintained official diplomatic relations with Al Assad after the Syrian civil war.
Oman and Iran enjoy ties as they have been free from war and conflict in the past. Further both the countries sit at the mouth of Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, a critical oil trade route. This proximity has led to the launch of military drills, enriching defence cooperation. With Oman’s gas reserves believed to be depleted soon, Iran’s plan to build a new undersea gas pipeline enabling Oman to import Iranian gas cheaply and sell more of its gas to other countries highlights Oman’s dire need also to consolidate financial ties with Iran.
The “sitting on the fence” strategy stems from Oman’s geographical proximity to Iran and Saudi Arabia which makes it vulnerable to the confrontation between the two Arab powers. The historical record of acting as a mediator through many decades pressurizes Sultan Qaboos to uphold the role of the peacemaker of the Middle East, through which his diplomacy aces all the bilateral relations. Unlike Qatar, it is the only country which has staunchly refused to join the Saudi led coalition in Yemen, which backs the Hadi government against the Iranian backed Houthi rebels, paving the way for the worst humanitarian catastrophe.
In retaliation to Oman’s neutral stance, Saudi fuelled propaganda to shun Oman’s neutrality by showing that Oman lets itself exploit a pathway to supply weapons to Hezbollah in Iran’s stronghold Lebanon. Saudi anger reached the highest boiling point when Oman tried to maintain cold peace during the GCC spat but simultaneously sent some essential supplies to Qatar by the sea which antagonised Saudis and their allies, given their existing frustration at Muscat’s cuddling with Iran. In the wake of sanctions imposed on Iran by Trump, Oman has publically stated that it will go forward with the project as the undersea gas pipeline project will be a lifeline for Oman’s devastating economy, thus prioritising its independent policy overriding ‘big brother Saud Kingdom’s” anti- Iran bandwagon.
The other upcoming roil will deteriorate the already muddy political waters and lead to the loss of Oman’s neutral stance as Qaboos already 78, battles with cancer, but has no heir. The internal disputes within the royal family over their heir might lead to more dissent and create a window of opportunity for meddling by its powerful neighbours Saudi and UAE and Iran. The powers, especially Saudi Arabia, in case of a power vacuum will jockey for re-storing a pro-Saudi heir, thus undermining Oman’s autonomy and rewarding itself with the loss of the peacemaker of the Arab world.
In the wake of Gulf crisis, small emirate Kuwait has tried to strike a middle ground between the GCC members addressing the concerns of their neighbours without creating a perception that Qatar is losing its independence in the process. Like Qatar and Oman, whose neutrality stems from their sound Iranian relations with Iran, Kuwait’s mediation efforts in the Qatari blockade stemmed more from the fact that the if the boycotting countries compel Qatar to toe the party line, their political independence will also be threatened. In Kuwait, unlike Saudi Arabia, dissent and political debate are considered “natural”. Muslim Brotherhood which is outlawed in Saudi Arabia has a politically active wing in Beirut parliament called Hadas. Their political representation has received flak from Saudi Arabia as MB impedes the long term stable monarchical rule.
Similarly, Kuwait’s domestic Shia population are loyal and supportive of Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah which has prompted the government to avoid aligning closely with Riyadh. Kuwait also aligned with Riyadh members by recalling its ambassadors after the storming of Saudi Embassy in Teheran on the execution of the dissident Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr. Like with Saudi Arabia, it has undergone through a rocky road with Iran due to its interference in Kuwaiti affairs – Kuwait convicted 23 people on spying for Hezbollah and Iran, who wanted to establish its hold there. Still, Kuwait had maintained normal low key relations with Iran. As it does not want to get caught in the crossfire of two major rivals, it is important to balance its relations with both the rival states to construct itself as a credible mediator, critical for its security. Qatar emerged victoriously out of the blockade but sadly Kuwait’s Emir Al- Sabah, an experienced diplomat, efforts to delude the crisis seem futile as the crisis is at the stalemate. It is evident from the recent GCC summit hosted in Riyadh in December where Qatar sent a low-level delegation to the summit. While it may not succeed to patch up the GCC, it has established its international legitimacy for its efforts.
A widespread notion persists that Saudi Arabia wants to pounce on the small neighbours due to its equation with Iran, but what pricks Saud Kingdom is that they all walked out of its shadow by establishing, independent bilateral alliances with its staunchest ally the USA and over the years relied on substantial USA security umbrella. Under crowned prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) the Qatari blockade has been staged as an exemplary example of “diplomatic deficiency” which has thrown Saud Kingdom’s zero-sum game strategy into turmoil. Thus Saudi Arabia is constantly trying to reorder the policies of its neighbours by aggressively echo chambering USA’s belief of a threat of Iran. As the Gulf neutrality causes friction with Saudi Arabia, it continues to reinforce the idea that divergent positions are fatal to American interests.
But these small sheikhdoms rely on the outside powers who have limited interest in refashioning a political play of gulf and guarantee their survival in the face of its giant’ neighbours imperialism policies. Not only these smaller gulf states need the USA for their survival, but the USA also extracts its strategic gains from these countries as these countries time and again proved their value to united states. After the punitive measures came into action, Qatar undermined the Riyadh’s claim by lobbying through the funnel of diplomatic and military co-operation with the USA by singing a memorandum to understanding in which Qatar pledged to end the support for terrorist groups. To demonstrate its strategic value, it has also signed a 12 billion deal to buy US F 15 jets which were in the pipeline for a few months. Apart from that, Qatar hosts the largest USA Al Udeid Airbase, home to more than 11,000 soldiers, which acts as a military lynchpin. Its strategic location and proximity provide leverage against the Taliban in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Qatar and Kuwait have also pursued their strings to revive the cash strapped Jordan’s economy, an important USA ally by investing $ 500 m and $2B respectively, thus letting the USA get off the hook of healing the economic woes of its allies. Protests erupted in Jordan over anti-austerity measures, and unpopular IMF backed tax bill.
Qatar’s funnelling of 15 billion aid Hamas in Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired, a militant organisation that rules the Gaza strip will keep Gaza’s economy afloat and stave off sporadic clashes between Israel and Hamas. The clashes with Hamas is the last thing Israel would wish for. Thus, the secured Israeli interests also boost USA interests as Israel is an all-weather friend of USA. Oman might not have the ‘monetary wile” to lure the USA, but its role of an ideal interlocutor has brought America’s dear foe Iran to the negotiation table which led to the birth of JCPOA. Additionally, its pragmatic peace policy efforts also aimed to bring the Houthis and Saudis to the negotiation table, and it acted as a ground where Taliban, the Afghan government, USA held talks for the future of Afghanistan. While the latest futile UN-backed Yemeni peace talks held in Sweden failed to translate peace on the ground, Oman, or Kuwait could be the next destination for the round table talks, diminishing international outcry over Saudi’s involvement in Yemen war.
These neutral countries act as the soft powers and revamp USA’s core interest, where its involvement gets into the unchartered waters. Example: Helping Lebanon to revive its economy when the USA introduces sanctions on Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Trump’s impulsive decision of withdrawing its troops from Syria and signalling of removing its troops from Afghanistan and now the creation of Arab NATO are signs that the USA does not want to shed the blood of its American boots on ground and diplomatically deal with Middle East “from behind the scenes” by cracking billion dollars arm deal, selling them as “flashpoint” filling its already overflowing pockets. To permanently exit from the theatre of Middle East, and to constitute an Arab NATO, he has to prevent the ‘glass ceiling” of GCC from breaking by over strenuous efforts of uniting GCC with a common integrated purpose.
As the discord between the members, tears GCC apart, Trump should consider the acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty by its Gulf allies as a major diplomatic victory. The Iranian abhorrence has brought Saudi bloc and Israel together; who once cursed by the so-called “champions of the Palestinian cause”- Gulf monarchies for driving the Palestinians out of their lands with the creation of Israel in 1948. Though Israel won’t be a part of Arab NATO, America will continue to keep ablaze the anti- Iran threat to bind these counties together and facilitate defence cooperation between them to shield its interests.
The prevailing regional dynamics have divided the GCC into the two blocks: An assertive anti-Iran bloc and neutral gulf bloc, highlighting the independent foreign policy overrides the importance of the uniform political goals. Trump has to either convince the Saudi bloc to end its blockade on Qatar and calm down Saudi’s hegemonic adrenaline rush or coax its small sheikhdoms to cut ties with Iran if he wants to witness the creation of NATO on the horizon. But as the superfluous GCC has lost its raison d'être due to the divergent foreign policy visions averting the birth of MESA, there is another paramount reason which keeps the Arab NATO at a stalemate. Trump expressed loved for enemies and scorn for allies with withdrawing its troops from Syria and tweeting ‘Iran can do whatever it wants in Syria, thus giving it an upper hand in Syria. With Trump’s staunch anti- Iran staunch position, the Sunni Arab world thought they found a match made in heaven, but trump’s incoherent Iranian policy is frustrating its gulf partners who are tired of reading between the lines of his oscillating diplomacy. This was rightfully quoted by a Jordanian official as he asserted that the idea “remains a nonstarter” for the majority of Arab states adding that ‘Iran is not seen in a good light by many countries, but that is different from participating in a military alliance against it” Excluding Saudi Arabia and UAE who have military might, this idea has not gained traction from other gulf allies due to Trump’s disease of strategic myopia in Gulf and wavering stance towards blocking Iranian clout in the region. With the cracks in the GCC and no will from its smaller gulf allies, Trump should “let go” the idea of Arab NATO and forget it as an unfulfilled fantasy.
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Image Credit: Arabia foundation
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