Analysis |

Middle East Minefield Drives Away Dream of Regional Alliance

Joe Biden’s visit to the region next month has restored life to the idea of a regional alliance against Iran, but between the conflicting interests of the countries involved and the ebbing influence of the United States, the best that can be expected is economic agreements

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr celebrate after the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, in October.
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr celebrate after the announcement of the results of the parliamentary elections in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, in October.Credit: Hadi Mizban/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The reports of the establishment of a regional defense alliance, which will include Israel and a number of other Mideast countries, has breathed new life into the familiar idea of founding “the NATO of the Middle East.” This would be a sort of coalition of Arab nations, which along with Israel would set up a defensive shield against the shared threat that is Iran. But in recent briefings by aides and advisers to U.S. President Joe Biden, they are wary of discussing a military alliance, and instead are emphasizing the talking point of “raising the level of Israel’s integration in the region as a continuation of the Abraham Accords.”

Biden may have made it clear that Israel's security – rather than the issue of oil prices – is what has motivated his upcoming visit to the region and will be the focus of discussions. But it seems that concern for Israel’s security will serve mostly as ammunition against the criticism voiced in Washington against Biden's planned meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Members of Congress, the media and human rights organizations are describing the planned handshake with Prince Mohammed as a betrayal of the president’s principles, after he promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state due to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – a promise he did not keep. The White House has so far avoided saying whether the Khashoggi affair will be raised in discussions during Biden’s meeting in Saudi Arabia, but did confirm that such a meeting will take place.

Biden will also participate in an Arab summit in which the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt will participate. He will also conduct a conference call for Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates. “This is, first of all, a visit that is meant to demonstrate and confirm the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, and to try and refute the claims as to its disengagement from the region,” an American diplomat told Haaretz.

“We are not convinced that the visit will produce a new Middle East or strategic military alliance that will include Israel or even some of the Arab countries, especially when every one of these countries has a separate agenda and sometimes conflicting interests – not just with the United States, but also between themselves. But joint declarations also have value, especially when you are conducting a political battle before the midterm elections,” he added.

When the American diplomat speaks about conflicting interests, he means the Israeli aspiration to establish an alliance against Iran, among other things, while at the same time Saudi Arabia is holding talks with Iranian representatives. The Emirates have made a number of important economic agreements with Tehran, too. A different example is Qatar, Iran’s partner in the huge offshore natural gas field in the Gulf, while at the same time it has won praise from the Biden administration for its contribution to mediating between the United States and the Taliban and its acceptance of Afghan refugees. This is the same Qatar that the Saudis and UAE demanded to cut off its relations with Iran as part of lifting the economic blockade imposed on it in 2017. Qatar never agreed to the demands – and today no one is raising any such request.

Qatar will not be the only outlier in the Arab coalition against Iran. Oman, the sultanate where the meetings started in preparation for the first nuclear agreement reached in 2015, will also not be part of the coalition. Oman sees itself as a mediator state that preserves its strong ties with all the countries in the region, including Iran, and it does not intend on deviating from this policy. The same goes for Kuwait, which did not join in the boycott and blockade on Qatar, and is not a partner in the normalization campaign between the Gulf states and Israel.

In a number of the reports in Israeli media, Iraq has also been mentioned as a possible member of such an alliance. In a parallel universe, everything seems possible – but Iraq isn't living there yet. Last month, the Iraqi parliament passed a law that forbids any contact with Israel and Israelis, including on social media; violating the ban can end with a death sentence. This parliament, which has still not managed to agree on a new president or forming a government, succeeded in achieving unanimous approval on an anti-Israeli law. For now, Iraq has absolutely no interest in joining an anti-Iranian coalition so long as it is economically dependent on its neighbor, who supplies it with electricity, water and gas.

The paradox is that the person who was behind the law is Muqtada al-Sadr, the separatist religious leader who won a large majority in the elections and who is seen as taking a clear anti-Iranian stance – but at the same time he also is a harsh opponent of the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

This Iraqi entanglement becomes even more complicated when you examine Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iraq. Saudi Arabia supports and nurtures the Sunni minority in Iraq, the same minority that has joined al-Sadr’s coalition, who both the Saudis and Americans see as an obstacle to Iran’s influence in Iraq. While the Iran-backed Shi’ite bloc enjoys great political strength in spite of the embarrassing defeat of the Shi’ite militias and their representatives in the elections, it is still hard to imagine an Iraqi government (if one ever solidifies) agreeing to join up with an anti-Iranian coalition, even if Iraq finds a Saudi alternative for supplying its electricity.

No love lost

Between the Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, including Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco and the Emirates, there is no great love lost, either. A competition is underway between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over recruiting foreign investors. Riyadh offers financial incentives and benefits to every corporation that sets up business there. Abu Dhabi is not lagging far behind, but it has an advantage because of its image as an open, relatively liberal country that provides excellent educational services and a wide range of entertainment for Western foreign workers.

Permanent tension exists between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, stemming from the dependence of the Hashemite kingdom on Saudi economic aid. Jordan also fears Saudi intentions to push it out of its important role in the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and Jordan is the only Arab country where the Palestinian problem threatens its stability. The Iranian threat is not one of King Abdullah's top priorities – but an Israeli threat is.

Superficially, all of these countries, except for Iraq, are considered “pro-Western.” In other words, they countries from which the United States can expect support for its policies, even if they disagree somewhat. But the traditional binary division between “pro-Western” and “anti-American” countries no longer exists.

In an article entitled "From Suez to Neom: FDR's lessons for Biden," written by Haitham al-Zobaidi, the executive editor and co-owner of the London-based Arab Weekly website, and which is partly financed by the UAE, al-Zobaidi explains that the reason for the soured relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States is the American lobbyists who have worked, and still are working, to destroy the close ties the two countries built up over decades.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a Formula One race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in December.Credit: Andrej Isakovic/ Pool via Reuters

He divides these lobbyists into categories. These include the “pro-democracy” lobby which had set a goal of undermining the relationship with Saudi Arabia even before the Khashoggi affair and the war in Yemen. Another lobby is Qatari-sponsored and promotes Doha's interest at the expense of those of the Saudis'. And then there is the media lobby, he wrote, led by the Washington Post, which wants to immortalize the Khashoggi affair – and is the lobby that works directly to target Crown Prince Mohammed.

According to El-Zobaidi, there is a general American conspiracy, of which the media, Congress and even senior administration officials are members, to slander and isolate Saudi Arabia. His views reflect a political dialogue that is quite common in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – and not just there. When you add to these claims the shock the Gulf suffered when Biden began his campaign to renew the nuclear deal with Iran, the panicked withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation of Iraq, the deep suspicions toward the Biden administration are quite understandable – as is the need to draft an alternative strategy to a U.S. alliance.

The most prominent manifestations of this new strategy are the expanding cooperation with China, which includes Saudi Arabia’s intentions of buying Chinese missiles and military technology; the reestablishment of relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; the freezing of negotiations over the purchase of F-35 warplanes conducted between the United States and the Emirates; the refusal to join American sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine; and the refusal of Biden’s request to increase Saudi oil production.

These steps are no replacement for the close and essential ties with the United States, but are an attempt to diversify diplomatic options and to dissolve the total dependence on a single superpower. Given all of this, the Arab-Israeli-American defense alliance now being presented as a new strategy on the part of Biden is nothing but a rough draft for the time being. Save for Israel, the nations that are willing to come together in this alliance do not see Iran as a military target, and it will be hard to convince them to join such a war at a time when the United States sees diplomacy as the sole channel for curbing the Iranian nuclear threat.

As opposed to a military alliance, building a formal framework for regional economic cooperation could be a realistic goal, but to a great extent it already exists. Completing it, though, will require the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is still waiting on Biden to issue it its certificate of good behavior.

Alliances, coalitions and blocs require long-term commitments based on governmental stability. From the point of view of the Arab nations, they are the only ones who can provide such a commitment, while Israel, which is wallowing in political uncertainty, and the United States, which does not know who its next president will be, are more precarious. It seems that signing specific economic and technological cooperation agreements can be expected during Biden’s visit, including agreements on the redeployment of the international force on the islands of Sanafir and Tiran at the entrance to Gulf of Aqaba, the opening of Saudi skies to planes flying to and from Israel, declarations of friendship and security, and the establishment of steering committees to promote cooperation – but an Israeli-Arab NATO will have to wait.

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