The Mirage Of An ‘Arab NATO’ – OpEd


Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) itself is falling apart as vividly demonstrated in the disastrous recent NATO summit where US President Donald Trump scolded other NATO members for a security free ride, this has not stopped the idea of replicating in the Persian Gulf by setting up an “Arab NATO.” Spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and emboldened by the willingness of (non-Arab) Pakistan to extend a lending hand, this initiative is, by all indications, yet another exercise in impractical wishful thinking that will most likely remain on paper for the foreseeable future.

One reason is, of course, the complete lack of unity in the Arab world put on display these days by the war of words between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the latter’s supposed closeness to Iran, not to mention a plethora of other divisive issues that simply preclude the formation of an Arab NATO. Even the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are in disagreement among themselves over this idea, which has been rebuffed by Kuwait explicitly, and therefore it is likely that this whole concept will be buried soon rather taking shape as a new military and political reality.

Another reason operating against an “Arab NATO’ is that it is entertained along the Sunni-Shiite fault line, thus creating internal fissures in the badly-divided Arab World that is plagued with extreme sectarianism. Countries such as Iraq, led by the Shiite majority today, would have no place in this idea, which has been shaped as a counterweight to Shiite Iran.

A third reason against the “Arab NATO” initiative is that any idea of NATO, Arab or not, invites hostility from both China and Russia, who dread the thought of NATO’s expansion one way or another. Thus, an unworkable idea is apt to add to the GCC states’ political headaches rather than help resolve them.

Fourth, the Americans seem to have come to the conclusion that despite their toying with it before Trump’s recent visit to the region it is not an altogether creative idea and that is why Trump’s big speech in Riyadh made no mention of it. An Arab NATO would, inevitably, give a prominent role to Egypt, given its considerable clout, and that too is premature in light of serious divisions between Cairo and Riyadh. Egypt is naturally interested in playing a greater role in the Persian Gulf security affairs but that is not viewed with favor by the small GCC states. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at odds over Syria and this too is a major factor against an “Arab NATO.”

In conclusion, the mirage of an Arab NATO might linger for a while and leave a rainbow of political colors on the deserts of Arabia, but it is simply destined to the dustbin of history.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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