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May 2, 2014 | 09:05 GMT

5 mins read

Gulf States Consider Starting an 'Arab NATO'

Tanks participate in a joint Gulf Cooperation Council military exercise north of Kuwait City.
(YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

In recent months, reports have circulated suggesting that the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, wants to form an "Arab NATO" of sorts by establishing an expanded military alliance, principally between itself and the Arab kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan. With Iran and its allies ascendant and the United States pulling back its involvement in the region, there is no shortage of reasons for the Arab states to want to build out their military capabilities through an alliance. However, the widely varying interests of the individual states will make it difficult if not impossible for any potential defensive bloc to take collective action even if it is eventually formed.

The Gulf monarchies have good cause to seek the added security of a defensive alliance. Since the Arab Spring began in 2011, the Arab world has become increasingly unstable, all at a time of perceived U.S. disengagement. The Syrian civil war, the ongoing violence in Iraq and the chaos of Yemen are making the GCC countries uneasy. And Iran, despite the limitations of its largely obsolete military equipment, remains a potent threat, especially given its asymmetrical capabilities and tools, including its ability to mine the Strait of Hormuz and its ballistic missile arsenal that could strike GCC energy infrastructure in the Gulf.

The GCC, and especially Saudi Arabia, is also alarmed by the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program and the larger strategic situation in the region. Concerned that its ultimate security guarantor, the United States, may not be as dependable as before, Saudi Arabia is all the more keen to assemble its own strengthened military alliance.

According to the reports, the proposal was presented to Morocco and Jordan in late March and is still under consideration. It would establish the alliance under a joint command initially headed by Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, currently the head of the Saudi National Guard. A strengthened military alliance would assuage some of the concerns related to the aforementioned conflicts. An alliance under a joint command in theory would also greatly improve the flow and exchange of intelligence and information, allowing the GCC and other Arab countries joining the new alliance to better coordinate their response to an increased flow of jihadists in the region, particularly due to the draw of the Syrian civil war. Furthermore, as occurred with the 2011 deployment to Bahrain of the Peninsula Shield Force, the GCC's current military force, an expanded and strengthened alliance could be used to clamp down on outbreaks of internal dissent and safeguard the authoritarian rule of many of these royal families.

The GCC, under encouragement from the United States, is already seeking to improve interoperability and reduce procurement redundancy. This endeavor is matched by an attempt at overhauling the limited Peninsula Shield Force. The overhaul would first seek to expand the GCC's combined military force by more than doubling it to 100,000 troops. Arguably even more important, it would place the troops under a joint command and control system.

The expansion of the alliance to include Morocco and Jordan would serve as a major boost to the limited manpower available to the GCC. In return for their participation, Morocco and Jordan would likely be offered much-needed financial assistance from the richer Gulf countries. In 2012, the GCC presented Morocco and Jordan with a $5 billion financial aid package, and such aid can be expected to continue and perhaps even increase if Rabat and Amman join in a closer military alliance with the GCC.

Despite the considerable benefits of a strengthened and expanded Arab military alliance, significant systemic constraints exist that will seriously hamper such an effort. First, there are considerable political differences within the GCC itself, with Qatar especially at odds with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which the Saudis and the Emirates perceive as a serious potential domestic threat.

Additionally, not all of these countries believe Iran to be as much of a threat as Saudi Arabia does. For instance, Oman maintains rather cordial ties with Tehran. The internal squabbling and differences in outlook can also be readily seen in the disagreement about whether Egypt should be invited to join the alliance; the GCC member countries disagree over which factions in Egypt they support. Especially worrisome is the inability of these countries to even agree on a joint effort in a country where they largely agree on the desired outcome, namely Syria. All of the GCC countries involved in Syria continue to support their own favored factions, who have a tendency to turn their guns on rival factions supported by different GCC members, undermining what could be a combined effort at ousting Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime.

Bringing in Jordan and Morocco would not do much to enhance a common position. Jordan, for example, remains extremely wary of the effort to oust al Assad. Amman has sought to play a much more balanced role in supporting the rebels, fearing the spillover effects from a power vacuum in its northern neighbor. And despite Morocco's keen desire to maintain close ties with the GCC, which it has often demonstrated through its political and diplomatic support for Saudi Arabia, it would be much more reluctant to contribute militarily to Riyadh's regional ambitions. Even Morocco's military contribution in the Gulf War, in direct defense of Saudi territory, was controversial among the Moroccan public. Finally, bringing in Morocco and Jordan, with their disparate force compositions and equipment, would further complicate the effort underway to develop a joint fighting doctrine that includes interoperable equipment and communications.

There is certainly momentum toward increased military cooperation within the GCC, which could extend to including Jordan and Morocco in the bloc's activities. The significant existing tensions and differences in outlook, however, will prevent these countries from forming a truly effective Arab version of NATO.

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