Collective defense crucial to success of proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance

Collective defense crucial to success of proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday hosted the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, plus Egypt and Jordan, to discuss regional issues and the progress toward establishing the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) — dubbed the “Arab Nato.”

Pompeo emphasized the importance of defeating Daesh and other terrorist groups, bringing peace and stability to Syria and Yemen, ensuring a thriving and inclusive Iraq, and stopping Iran’s malign activity in the region. All participants agreed on the need to confront threats from Iran.

The meeting took place in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly, continuing a tradition that goes back decades. The inclusion of Egypt and Jordan was not new, as similar 6+2+1 formulations have taken place in the past. 

The new element was MESA. The idea for the alliance was agreed in principle in May 2017 during US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with more than 50 Arab and Islamic leaders in an unprecedented summit. The Riyadh Declaration, issued at the conclusion of the summit, announced the intention to establish MESA in Riyadh. Its establishment was to be completed and the names of participating countries announced in 2018. 

In last week’s New York meeting, it was agreed that MESA would have a wide-ranging remit: To advance prosperity, security and stability in the region. 

The US wants MESA to be anchored to the GCC. It could thus utilize the frameworks already developed, especially the Strategic Cooperation Forum, established at the ministerial level in 2012, and the GCC-US Strategic Partnership, announced at the heads of state level in 2015 and re-energized by Trump during his Riyadh visit last year. Those frameworks include numerous committees, teams and working groups in every area of strategic importance.

MESA would have three major areas of cooperation: Political, regional security and economic. Under each of these areas, topics could be developed and given to specialized teams to work out operational details. 

The Trump administration has been quite forceful in expressing its commitment to Middle East security, and so may be close to considering a formal US defense alliance with Arab states.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The same nine countries also met earlier this year to discuss a number of security issues, working in a fashion similar to that of the GCC-US partnership. However, because the alliance is still new and informal, the level of discussions is understandably general.

For MESA to be effective, it has to be based on the principle of collective defense. This must be enshrined into an agreement similar to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that the security of the group is indivisible and that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all. This principle is, in turn, derived from Article 51 of the UN Charter, which refers to the right of individual or collective self-defense and allows for countries to work in groups to safeguard regional security. It is also implied in Chapter 8 of the UN Charter, which encourages regional cooperation in all areas.

In addition to the NATO treaty, the US has entered into similar collective defense agreements with Japan, South Korea and other countries. Since treaties take a long time to enter into force, an interim agreement short of a full treaty could be a start, so that MESA is able to confront the present and imminent danger of terrorism and Iran’s destabilizing activities.

As well as a formal agreement, practical or operational steps have to be discussed. Experts familiar with the region could be tasked with providing practical suggestions. In fact, the GCC-US working groups have developed such recommendations regarding Iran and counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. Those outcomes could be easily adapted for MESA. To achieve speedy results and maintain a robust mandate for MESA, it would be better to develop the main documents with the help of a small core group, which could later be discussed by the entire membership. 

The big question that regional powers ask is what sort of commitment is the US ready to make? That has to be spelled out. Over the years, the US has made fairly strong statements about its commitment to Gulf security. However, because those statements were not part of a formal agreement, they were viewed in the region as temporary and non-binding. The US hesitation about expressing its commitment in formal terms made America’s friends and allies uncertain about its readiness to defend them.

The Trump administration has, however, been quite forceful in expressing its commitment to regional security, and as such may be the closest among recent administrations to considering a formal commitment. With such a step, the MESA framework would be robust enough to allow its members to count on each other, not only in collective security but also in economic partnership and political coordination. In the agreement, the parties would negotiate the collective principles underpinning the agreement and set the conditions where the agreement could be triggered.


  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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