‘Arab Shield 1’ drills and the future of military alliances in the Middle East

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Arab troops participating in the 'Arab Shield 1' drills continued their extensive land, sea and air military training on Sunday, as part of the joint Arab maneuvers that are expected to continue until November 16 at Egypt's Mohamed Naguib Military Base.

While the idea of creating a joint military alliance between Arab countries, unofficially known as the Arab NATO, is not new, it was recently revived by the Trump Administration. The White House confirmed it is working with US “regional partners” to establish an entity tentatively referred to as the Middle East Strategic Alliance MESA. The alliance, according to a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, has several objectives: “MESA will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East.”

READ ALSO: What would an ‘Arab NATO’ look like?

While no official steps were taken towards the creation of this alliance, the military exercises hosted by Egypt under the name “Arab Shield 1” with the participation of ground, naval, and air forces from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan as well as observers from Lebanon and Morocco triggered speculations about whether this is the start of it.

According to journalist Jack Detsch, the very exercises show that the Arab NATO is not feasible at the moment since they highlight existing divisions among Arab countries.

According to Detsch, it is in the United States’ best interest to see the alliance materialize as part of the strategy known as “by, with and through” at the Defense Department and in which the US prefers that regional powers face threats in their respective regions with its support rather than its direct involvement.

“The Egypt exercise comes as the last two US defense secretaries have tried to keep US forces out of harm’s way by shifting the fighting to partners in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and supporting Arab nations with training, air power and refueling support.”

Political analyst Abdullah al-Sinnawi argued that the problem with an Arab NATO resulting from the current exercises is that this alliance will include countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel, such as Egypt and Jordan, and others that do not, such as the Gulf states. “The alliance will mean gradual normalization with Israel by all member states,” he wrote, adding that this will constitute a drastic change in the region. Sinnawi added that another problem with the alliance is that it replaces Israel as the Arabs’ common enemy with Iran, hence undermining the Palestinian cause as the central one in the Arab world.

For journalist Mohamed Habousha, Arab Shield 1 exercises provide an opportunity to test the success of a future Arab NATO and emphasize the common purposes member states share. Habousha attributes the necessity of the exercises and the potential alliance to recent conflicts in the region and which saw the collapse of the military in several countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.

“The countries taking part in the exercise realized the urgency of upgrading their military capabilities to face any impending threats,” he wrote. “For example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE share the purpose of protecting the Red Sea from Houthi militias and all states involved need to face Iran and terrorism.”

Habousha noted that the exercises and the alliance do not mean declaring a war against Iran, but rather constitute a deterring force. “An open confrontation with Iran would be extremely costly for Arab countries on all fronts, but military prowess increases leverage and a unified entity is the perfect way of taming a powerful adversary.”

He also added that an alliance resulting from the exercises would signal the military independence of member states, which prove they can form a unified force that serves their interests and not just those of the United States if both have a few common goals. “For example, the United States might prefer a conflict with Iran, but Arab states do not agree with such approach.”

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