Can NATO model help Saudis build an Islamic alliance?
Dubai - Saudi Arabia is building an Islamic alliance that could become a military coalition of substance and a political bloc that could coalesce to act as a bulwark against emerging security threats.
Saudi Arabia is stepping up its game as it seeks to assert itself as a regional political and military heavyweight. Statesmen from allied Muslim countries gathered recently in Saudi Arabia to witness the conclusion of Northern Thunder — the largest military exercises undertaken in the region — together with their host King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The motivation for Riyadh is clear. The United States is not highly dependable and the Saudis are realising that the Americans, despite being the traditional security guarantor in the region, have their own agenda and outlook that ultimately put Saudi interests at risk.
A recent interview by US President Barack Obama in the Atlantic magazine served as a reminder of how Washington continues to see its relationship with Saudi Arabia as “complicated” and maintains a perception that its regional allies “free-ride” off American firepower.
Riyadh will have to secure its long-term security interests with its own leadership and with lack of alternative options with Russia or China to replace or rebalance dependence on the United States, an Islamic alliance holds the best promise. Such an alliance may be timely for much of the security dilemma in the region is somehow internal to the Islamic world and insofar as that it makes sense that there is deeper strategic alignment among this particular community of states.
As architects of this new alliance, there are four key lessons the Saudis can draw from the NATO model — a political and military alliance unique in history that has endured periods of enormous global transformations.
General Hastings Ismay, Britain’s chief military assistant during World War II and first secretary-general of NATO, described its purpose as intended “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”
Some might argue that as far as Syria is concerned, the Saudis would be similarly content with keeping the Russians out, the Americans in and the Iranians down.
Longer term, however, Saudi Arabia is more interested in keeping the terrorists out, Sunnis together and the Iranians down. Though any one element of this on its own may not be convincing for several states, especially those outside the Gulf, that Riyadh would like to see become part of its envisaged alliance. The security “package” offered by this alliance will determine its form, output and, ultimately, its success.
At the most basic level Riyadh will need to be able to develop a set of core principles such as Article 5, Article 4, and Article 6 (in order of importance), which are the bedrock pillars of the NATO alliance.
Article 5 commits NATO members to consider an armed attack against one member to be an attack against them all. This has only ever been invoked once — by the United States following September 11th, 2001.
Article 4 lets members call for immediate military consultations when “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened”. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland convoked a meeting with Article 4 in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.
Article 6 stipulates the geographical territories covered by the articles of the alliance. In other words, where it counts and where it does not.
Second, Riyadh will need to establish a permanent, well-resourced structure in which military and civilian personnel from alliance members can work together. The end goal has to be the formation of a permanent military command rotated among the major powers.
However, the immediate focus would need to be placed firmly on standardisation. Only a programme of standardisation between alliance members at the training, doctrine, concept of operations and equipment levels can ensure they can effectively operate jointly in the first place.
Third, Riyadh will need to have a clear plan for the economics of the sort of international military alliance it is envisaging. While NATO upholds collective defence for its 28 members as its definitive purpose, it is driven financially by just a handful of states.
The United States contributes almost one-quarter of the yearly NATO funding requirements whereas Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada together contribute more than half.
Saudi Arabia may be able to replicate or even go beyond the financial role played by the United States in NATO for its own alliance but it will also need a small group of states to commit to significant financial contributions. However, this pool of candidates is small and realistically limited to Gulf Cooperation Council states, such as the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait and Qatar, and to Turkey.
Finally, just as NATO expanded gradually, beginning with 12 founding members in 1949 and absorbing another 16 over the course of 67 years since, Riyadh, too, must take a long-term development approach.
NATO assesses when prospective candidates for membership have reached maturity including compliance to established standards before being welcomed into the alliance, otherwise they could prove an expensive liability.
Quality must trump quantity for its alliance and if Riyadh upholds this overarching principle, then its deterrence objectives could be achieved, just as NATO has done, without ever having to fight in a single conventional conflict.