Uncertain Future for NATO-Like Arab Force After Egypt’s Reported Pullout

CAIRO – Egypts decided to pull out from discussions for the US’s proposed NATO-like ‘Arab force’, which had been proposed with the purpose of reducing Iran’s influence in the Middle East region. The decision serves to undermine the initiative and effectively makes such a formation impossible, analysts have said.

“The Egyptian pull out form the force will significantly weaken it.” said Hussein al-Beheiri, a Middle Eastern Affairs specialist with the Egyptian think take ‘Center for Middle Eastern Studies’.

Egypt has refused to send representatives to a meeting regarding this force in the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 9, an apparent sign that Cairo is not enthusiastic about the whole idea.

On the same day, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was meeting in Washington with US President Donald Trump. A short time earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of the potential application of sanctions on Egypt if it chooses to move ahead with its planned purchase of SU-35 fighter jets from Russia, in light of an American law that punishes America’s adversaries.

Egypt wants these multifaceted fighter jets to add to its air force, as it continues to modernises its armed forces.

The Arab Force was a concept first proposed by Donald Trump in 2017. It was the mechanism through which the US President hoped to limit Iran’s influence in the Middle East region.

Iran has been at the center of considerable discussion for the US government and its Arab allies, as a result of the control Iran holds in many important Arab capitals.

The country has built a presence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, with militias aligned with the Islamic Republic having become a security threat to neighboring US ally states.

There are developing fears in Sunni Arab capitals regarding Shiite Iran’s growing leverage in the region. A mix of political, ideological and religious considerations have lead these capitals to consider the Islamic Republic of Iran as a threat.

There is little clarity on the nature of the propose Arab force, officially known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). There is also little information on how the alliance will counter Iranian influence in the region. Pompeo has visited several countries in the region over the past few months in order to promote the alliance.

Nevertheless, a number of stumbling blocks stand in the war of forming such as bloc, including polarization amongst Sunni Arabs.

The current standoff between Qatar, on one hand, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, on the other, is at the heart of these current polarizations.

The latter four nations severed their diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar in June 2017, after accusing it of sponsoring terrorist movements, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as interfering with their domestic affairs.

In order to remove itself from this isolation imposed by these four Arab nations, Qatar developed stronger relations with Iran and Turkey, both of whom are seen as regional adversaries to those boycotting the small Gulf state.

In February of this year, Qatari foreign minister Mohamed bin Adel Rahman stated that MESA was doomed to fail so long as the crisis between his country and the four nations continued to be left unresolved.

Oman, one of six member states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, is a strong ally of Iran and moderates between Iran and western powers, including the US.

While Egypt and Saudi Arabia maintain close ties, Egypt does not view Iran from a sectarian perspective, analysts have said.

This is why it does not view it as a direct threat to its security, as is the view of Saudi Arabia, they added.

Regardless, the Iran-aligned Hout militia, which were able to overrun Yemen four years ago, threatens navigation at the southern entrance of the Red Sea and consequently in the Suez Canal.

Cairo has not yet commented on reports of its pulling out of MESA.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said on April 11 that his country welcomed reports regarding Egypting leaving discussions, even without any official confirmation of this decision.

“Egypt is an important and powerful country,” the official Iranian news agency quoted Ghasemi as saying. “This is why it can play an important role in spreading peace and stability in the region.”

In Egypt, news about withdrawal from the alliance was warmly welcomed by those closely following this populous country’s foreign policy moves.

Egypt cannot be party to something that will not benefit the Arabs as a nation,” Bakry stated.