Colby Connelly is an MA Candidate in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He previously worked in Saudi Arabia for several years. He can be found on Twitter @ColbyAntonius. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Disunity among U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf threatens prospects for the establishment of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA).
Date Originally Written: January 6, 2019.
Date Originally Published: January 8, 2019.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a graduate student interested in U.S. security policy towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Background: The Trump Administration has expressed the intention to create a Sunni Arab alliance aimed at countering Iranian influence in the Middle East through the establishment of MESA, often referred to as the “Arab North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).” Prospective MESA member states are Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, and Egypt. Such an alliance would constitute a unified bloc of U.S.-backed nations and theoretically indicate to the Iranian government that a new, highly coordinated effort to counter Iranian influence in the region is taking shape.
Significance: Since the inception of the Carter Doctrine, which firmly delineates American national security interests in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has developed extensive political, security, and economic ties with through the GCC. GCC members include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. While the Trump Administration envisions the GCC members making up the backbone of MESA, in recent years the bloc has been more divided than at any time in its history. The GCC is effectively split between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, who favor more assertive measures to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, and Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, who advocate a softer approach to the Iranian question. How to approach Iranian influence is one issue among others that has contributed to the ongoing boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt since 2017. The Trump Administration has encouraged a settlement to the dispute but has made little headway.
Option #1: The Trump Administration continues to advocate for the formation of MESA.
Risk: Forming MESA is a challenge as there is no agreement among potential members regarding the threat Iran poses nor how to best address it. Historically, GCC states are quicker to close ranks in the face of a commonly perceived threat. The GCC was formed in response to the Iran-Iraq war, and the bloc was most united in its apprehension to what it perceived as U.S. disengagement from the Middle East during the Obama Administration. So long as the GCC states feel reassured that the U.S. will remain directly involved in the region, they may see no need for national security cohesion amongst themselves. The ongoing GCC crisis indicates that Arab Gulf states place little faith in regional institutions and prefer bilateralism, especially where security issues are concerned. The failure of the Peninsula Shield Force to ever develop into an effective regional defense body able to deter and respond to military aggression against any GCC member is perhaps the most prolific example of this bilateralism dynamic. Further, a resolution to the ongoing boycott of Qatar by GCC members would almost certainly be a prerequisite to the establishment of MESA. Even if the Qatar crisis were to be resolved, defense cooperation would still be impeded by the wariness with which these states will view one another for years to come.
Gain: The formation of a unified bloc of U.S. partner states committed to balancing Iranian influence in the Middle East may serve to deter increased Iranian aggression in the region. This balancing is of particular relevance to the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El-Mandab Strait; both of which are chokepoints for global commercial shipping that can be threatened by Iran or armed groups that enjoy Iran’s support. In backing MESA, the U.S. would also bolster the strength of the relationships it already maintains with prospective member states, four of which are major non-NATO Allies. As all prospective MESA members are major purchasers of U.S. military equipment, the alliance would consist of countries whose weapons systems have degrees of interoperability, and whose personnel all share a common language.
Option #2: The Trump Administration continues a bilateral approach towards security partners in the Middle East.
Risk: Should an imminent threat emerge from Iran or another actor, there is no guarantee that U.S. partners in the region would rush to one another’s defense. For example, Egypt may be averse to a military engagement with Iran over its activities in the Gulf. This may leave the U.S. alone in defense of its partner states. A bilateral strategy may also lack some of the insulation provided by multilateral defense agreements that could dissuade adversaries like Iran and Russia from exploiting division among U.S. partners. For instance, Russia has courted Qatar since its expression of interest in purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is not interoperable with other U.S.-made systems deployed throughout the Gulf region.
Gain: The U.S. can use a “hub and spoke” approach to tailor its policy to regional security based on the needs of its individual partners. By maintaining and expanding its defense relationships in the Gulf, including the U.S. military presence in Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, the U.S. can ensure that both itself and its allies are equipped to handle threats as they emerge. Devoting increased resources and efforts to force development may deter Iranian aggression more so than simply establishing new regional institutions, which with few exceptions have often held a poor track record in the Middle East. An approach that favors bilateralism may sacrifice some degree of power projection, but would perhaps more importantly allow the U.S. to ensure that its partners are able to effectively expand their defense capabilities.
Other Comments: None.
 NATO for Arabs? A new Arab military alliance has dim prospects. (2018, October 6). Retrieved from The Economist: https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/10/06/a-new-arab-military-alliance-has-dim-prospects
 Kahan, J. H. (2016). Security Assurances for the Gulf States: A Bearable Burden? Middle East Policy, 23(3), 30-38.
 Bowden, J. (2017). Keeping It Together: A Historical Approach to Resolving Stresses and Strains Within the Peninsula Shield Force. Journal of International Affairs, 70(2), 134-149.
 Lee, J. (2018, 26 July). Bab el-Mandeb, an Emerging Chokepoint for Middle East Oil Flows. Retrieved from Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-26/bab-el-mandeb-an-emerging-chokepoint-for-middle-east-oil-flows
 Russia and Qatar discuss S400 missile deal. (2018, July 21). Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-qatar-arms/russia-and-qatar-discuss-s-400-missile-systems-deal-tass-idUSKBN1KB0F0