Talks on ‘Arab NATO’ said to be in early stages

MESA would include all six GCC countries, Jordan and Egypt to counter Iran’s activities in the region.
Sunday 07/10/2018
A member of Sudanese forces walks on the tarmac during a joint military drill with Saudi troops at the Marwa air base in Sudan. (AFP)
Crucial alliances. A member of Sudanese forces walks on the tarmac during a joint military drill with Saudi troops at the Marwa air base in Sudan. (AFP)

LONDON - The Trump administration is moving forward to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies in follow-ups to meetings at the UN General Assembly.

Pompeo met with Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa on October 3 in Washington, where they continued discussions regarding MESA, the so-called “Arab NATO.”

Pompeo also spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz about the war in Yemen and countering the Iranian regime’s malign activities in the region,” the US State Department said.

MESA would include all six GCC countries, Jordan and Egypt to counter Iran’s activities in the region.

Despite the active push by the State Department, officials described the talks at still near a starting point.

“We are in the early stages of discussions and we agreed on continuing them.” Sheikh Khalid told Sky News Arabia after meeting with Pompeo at the General Assembly. He said there was a clear vision with regards to “Iranian threats.”

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi also said talks were in their infancy.

“It’s a very early stage of this concept yet. A lot of discussions are going to have to be made to see what a final format comes in. In principle, Jordan always believes in all of us working together to address the challenges and solve the crises,” Safadi told Russian government news agency Sputnik.

“We will engage in a positive conversation with a view to ensuring that whatever we come up with will be a structure that would allow us to collectively address challenges and help us achieve peace, stability and security. There are many crises in the region that have regional and global implications, and therefore any collective effort on that would be useful in solving them.”

Several issues might hinder the United States’ efforts to get MESA off the ground, particularly countries expected to be part of the alliance but are on very friendly terms with Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and economic ties with GCC member Qatar in June 2017. They imposed sanctions including closing shared borders, sea routes and airspace with Doha over what they described as Qatar’s support of Islamist terrorist groups and its relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE removed Qatar from the coalition fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government against the Iran-allied Houthi militia and Doha increased relations with Iran.

In September, in a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani expressed a willingness to boost ties with Tehran, a pledge that came at the same time Tehran was threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and disrupt oil shipments from the Gulf.

If the General Assembly meetings are an indication, all sides involved in the dispute have stressed that issues were still a long way from being resolved.

Another obstacle would be Oman, which had ties with Iran that facilitated the 2015 nuclear deal, which the Trump administration recently withdrew from.

Oman’s coveted role as a regional mediator due to its declared neutral foreign policy has come into question, particularly regarding the war in Yemen.

Since the start of the conflict more than three years ago, allegations of weapons smuggling to the Houthis via Oman arose sporadically by the anti-Houthi coalition.

In March, US Defence Secretary James Mattis had high-level talks with Omani officials on regional matters, including the war and Yemen and the issue of Iran’s weapons smuggling to the Houthi rebels.

The official statement from the Pentagon did not include mention of weapons smuggling, with US analysts saying that was because of the sensitive nature of the matter and to not alienate Muscat.

“American officials are concerned about Iranian arms going through Oman but anything they say would likely be in private.” NPR Security Correspondent David Welna, who was reporting on Mattis’s regional tour, said at the time.

Whether Pompeo can get all participants on the same page is not known but there is a January 2019 meeting scheduled to iron out the concept.