By Assawer Toheed.
The Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance (MESA) is the United States of America’s relatively recent venture into and attempt towards maintaining its control over the Middle East. As a result, another one of these alliances pertaining to enhancing partnerships among the Middle Eastern states and the United States of America has gained prominence, the operationalization of which is questionable. This particular organization is of interest not only because of its recent emergence but also because of the part its operationalization (or lack thereof), its aims and goals, and its possible and plausible results could play in redefining regional stature and dynamics; which can also consequently have an impact on the global order, at large. This essay attempts to discuss and analyse the future of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance. It takes into account three different contextual viewpoints to examine the aforementioned; the first viewpoint takes a general approach in studying the trends in terms of where the alliance is headed; the second viewpoint takes into account a possible regional development/threat I.e. Iran’s aspirations towards developing a full-fledged nuclear program and thus achieving nuclear capability and examines the impact it would have on the viability of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance; the third and last viewpoint appraises MESA through the lens of the approaching presidential elections in the United States of America and examines the survivability of the alliance should the reins of rule shift to a different party.
The concept for the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance, as previously stated, was put forth by the United States of America and formally disclosed when the American President, Donald Trump visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2017. The alliance was initiated as one that was to contribute to enhancing regional as well as global peace and security. The course of action to be taken to ensure the aforementioned panned out to be a joint venture between the United States of America and the Middle Eastern states (Gulf Cooperation Council + Egypt and Jordan); the aims later expanded to include political and economic aspects as well. While on paper, the alliance exists to work towards regional and global promotion of peace and security, one of the underlying (and, in hindsight, most important) motives appear to be the United States of America taking every possible action to protect its own interests in the region; especially, in the scenario where America aims to reduce its contribution in the provision of Middle Eastern security to the level of what the Gulf states pay America for, and no more. The latter steers away from adopting a harsher stance because the former’s cooperation in controlling oil prices is still a necessity as is their support to counter any increment in Chinese and/or Russian influence within the region and outside. Countering Iran’s influence, proxies and actions in the region, broadly, is what led the United States of America to put forth the concept of the alliance, in the first place.
To outline general trends in terms of what lies in the future for the alliance, an analysis is absolutely imperative of the past experiences of the states in the middle east when it comes to partnerships and alliances. The history of the Middle East is littered with examples of failed alliances and partnerships in the name of regional integration, cooperation and defence, for instance:
- Central Treaty Organization/The Baghdad Pact (1955): CENTO/ later, The Baghdad Pact struggled to formulate a common identity and remained unpopular in the middle east for as long as it lasted. Members of the treaty were Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Great Britain. Prominent Middle Eastern states denounced the treaty due to their distrust in their neighbours as well as to counter the emergence of an alliance that could, by extension, be another example of European colonialism and expansionism. Member states (Iran & Iraq) ended up withdrawing from the treaty/pact one after the other as a result of their domestic revolutions and the central ideas of the treaty fell through.
- The Arab League (1945): The Arab League’s success lies not in its longevity but in how fruitful its actions have been. For instance, under the pretext of the league, an Arab Deterrent Force was formulated to partake and fight beside the Lebanese in their civil war. The deterrent force appeared to be a liability because the violence continued and resulted in Syrian occupation of parts of Lebanon. The league’s helplessness grew apparent when the league’s member states stood with either Iran or Iraq during the latter’s’ war as opposed to working in favour of the league. Largely, however, the league has been unable to generate cooperation and the instability of the region lives on.
In examining these failed attempts of regional cooperation in terms of security, politics, economics etc, a causal relationship grows apparent between the aforementioned and the causes of non-cooperation I.e.:
- Differing ends/goals of the Middle Eastern States.
- Inability and lack of space to trust neighbouring states.
Similarly, the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance does not take into account the domestic differences of the Middle Eastern states and their past experiences with this method of enhancing cooperation and generating integration which is why most Arab states view the alliance as one that serves American interests at their expense. Prominent states part of the alliance also believe it to be a military one which, paired with the American export of arms to states in the middle east has generated the impression that extensive securitization is the one path to stability; the tendency to respond to regional and/or global threats with military power demonstrated by states like Saudi Arabia, UAE (etc.) paints a picture of the effect the aforementioned concept of securitization has had on the region. Yemen is example enough, in this regard. Member states, additionally, do not see eye to eye on regional matters of security. For instance, states in the Middle East have differing and varying viewpoints about and towards Iran; Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in the Middle East consider Iran as a major threat to regional security. On the other hand, Qatar, a member state of the Gulf Cooperation Council views its neighbours (Saudi Arabia and UAE) as much concerns in terms of threat to regional security than Iran. Similarly, while UAE and Saudi Arabia wage a war of sorts in Yemen, states like Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait have steered away from military involvement in the country (and thereby, the crisis that has ensued).
The Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance was brought into being with the ideation and aim that the region could become one with expansive consultative mechanisms in place; this, resultantly, would have deepened the region’s interoperability. However, as is apparent from the examples above a thick atmosphere of distrust prevails in the region to the point that it is downright impossible for all of the member states of MESA to share intel between themselves. This outroots a loophole in the process since lack of intel sharing is most likely to result in the institutionalization of the already weak land, air, maritime and cyber defences of the states and thereby of the middle east, as a whole.
The ongoing Middle Eastern Qatari (2017-) rift is an additional factor that brings the survival of MESA into question. Qatar, despite being a member state of the GCC, has been accused of terror financing and having cordial ties with Iran. The recent conflict resulted in most member states of the GCC/middle east severing diplomatic ties with Qatar. The restrictions are to be lifted if Qatar cuts ties with Iran and realigns itself with the Arab Sunni bloc. Qatar sought help from Iran to lessen the economic shock of the imposed blockades. Consequently, Iran gained a window of influence right in the heart of the GCC and therefore MESA. This has the potential to derail the alliance, once and for all.
In addition to that, it is essential that the viability of the alliance be analysed in terms of the impact of Iran’s aspirations towards achieving a nuclear program. Iran dismantled, in substantial proportions, its nuclear program, keeping in line with the agreement “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (adopted and implemented in 2015 and 2016, respectively)”- signed between the permanent five plus one (P5 (Russia, China, US, UK, France) + 1 (Germany)) of the United Nations’ Security Council and Iran. A year later, the Trump administration accused Iran of having flown into the face and spirit of the deal; interestingly, the IAEA and the remaining members of the permanent five raised no such concerns. Donald Trump’s administration however threatened to singlehandedly revoke the deal, suggesting that it did not cover Iran’s production of its ICBMs. The United States of America withdrew from the deal and unilaterally imposed multiple sanctions on Iran under the pretext of non-compliance; this resulted in the plummeting of the value of the Iranian Rial and unprecedented increment in inflation in the country to which Iran responded by resuming its uranium enrichment programs. Qasem Soleimani (an Iranian commander in the military)’s murder at the hands of the United States of America in January 2020 proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the JCPOA. Iran, in response to the killing, dropped all commitments pertaining to the deal.
American withdrawal from the deal and unilateral sanctions imposed upon Iran have paved way for the emergence of regional (and therefore, global) strategic uncertainties. The state, at the moment, is the talk of the town pertaining largely to its Ballistic Missile program. Iran’s progression in its nuclear program has additionally resulted in widespread unease across the Middle East, especially after Iran dropped commitments to JCPOA. A nuclear Iran most likely will tip over the regional balance of power system that is in place at the moment, whilst also raising strategic and security challenges within and outside the region to an alarming rate. The magnitude of this potential threat has always weighed in on the Sunni Arab states; therefore, the states have exploited their relations with the US to invoke a harsher American reaction towards Iran’s nuclear program.
A nuclear Iran might also pave way for domestic dissent in the middle eastern states; public opinion could shift towards Iran as an equal opponent of (a possibly nuclear) Israel where the people might regard the former as the ‘new’ flag bearers of the Palestinian cause.
Balance of threat might be the course of action most states in the middle east would take should Iran acquire nuclear capabilities- in that, they might either join forces to balance and therefore counter the greater threat of a nuclear Iran or a regional chaos might ensue with capable member states investing in their own nuclear programs. As it has been stated previously, however, the lack of trust between and confidence in these states in the Middle East, the sought-after course of action might be the latter (where states invest in their own nuclear programs). A belief exists that the gravity of the threat might cause these states to band together but the rational approach that exists in international relations suggests otherwise. Everyone is on their own, in this regard. The middle eastern states part of MESA do not see eye to eye on potential security threats which further reinstates the idea that their response is likely to differ from each other. Differing aims, interests, goals and ends may pave way for MESA to join the pre-existing list of alliances and partnerships that bore no fruit.
The Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance is predominantly an American venture, as mentioned previously. Therefore, it is important to examine and underscore the relevance of the role of the state in the assessment of the viability of the alliance. The United States of America, for a while now, has expressed the desire to withdraw from the Middle East; the establishment of the alliance partly was a way for them to secure their interests in the region before withdrawing. It is imperative for the aforementioned to be achieved that MESA is on its feet and thriving; without the United States of America in the region, overseeing the alliance’s evolution, it is unlikely that the alliance will survive especially when paired with the socio-political dynamics of the Middle Eastern region, as discussed earlier. Another factor that needs to be taken into account while analysing the viability of the alliance is the possible change of government in the United States of America’s approaching elections. It is plausible for the next administration to have an altogether contrasting outlook on policies towards the Middle East. The new administration might rescind their withdrawal or could have contradictory stances in terms of US role in the region. Change of government can, in addition, decide that MESA does not fit their narrative pertaining to the Middle East and consequently withdraw from the alliance (resulting in the alliance going redundant). A similar occurrence from 2018 when Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action stating can be used as an example of successive governments disagreeing with their predecessors and revoking existing agreements, alliances, partnerships, etc. Moreover, a change in leadership can result in a state’s political orientations as well; for instance, Obama’s democratic government had a softer corner for Iran than it did for Saudi Arabia or the other Arab Sunni States; similarly, Trump’s republican government adopted a harsh stance towards Iran- this suggests that a leader’s/party’s political orientations and affiliations can largely change the outlook of the government.
In summary, this essay has attempted to analyse the future of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance from three different contextual viewpoints. It has been identified that there exists a plethora of hindrances on the alliance’s path to survival. An air of mistrust prevails in the region where states have both similar and differing aims and interests. The states’ threat perception vary as do their responses. The aforementioned is why MESA could potentially fall apart if Iran achieved nuclear capability- each state would look out for its own self in the way it deemed more suitable. Similarly, the approaching American elections could have a similar impact on the alliance if the reins of the government changed hands. In conclusion, it is safe to say that the future of the Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance does not appear as bright; it is entirely possible for the alliance to go redundant and/or fall apart if either the region undergoes a major shift or if the globe does.
2 IAEA: International Atomic Energy Agency ascertains that nuclear energy be used peacefully; denounces the use of nuclear energy for military purposes and/or for the creation of weapons of mass destruction.