Fault lines in the Sunni front against Iran?

Egypt might be withdrawing from the planned Middle East defense alliance with US backing, known as the “Arab NATO.”

SAUDI ARABIA’S envoy and other Gulf states gather in Kuwait in 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI ARABIA’S envoy and other Gulf states gather in Kuwait in 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is being whispered in Arab circles that Egypt is withdrawing from the planned Middle East defense alliance with US backing, known as the “Arab NATO,” the Sunni answer to the Iranian threat.
There has been no official Egyptian response to the rumor, but according to “anonymous sources,” America and Saudi Arabia were told of the decision before an April 9 meeting convened in Riyadh by both countries to discuss how to advance the plan with all the countries expected to take part in that alliance, including Qatar.
Egypt did not attend. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who traveled to Washington two days later at President Donald Trump’s invitation, did discuss strategic cooperation between the two countries with his host, according to the communique issued by the White House. However no specific issue was mentioned. Though whether Cairo did in fact withdraw from the plan is unclear. The Egyptian president has more pressing issues at this time.
The alliance was to include the six Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar – as well as Egypt and Jordan. It would create a united Arab force to oppose Iran. The plan had been first submitted to president Barack Obama, who chose to keep on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran without taking into considerations the vital interests of Saudi Arabia – and of Israel.
The deal did not address Iranian subversion throughout the region or efforts made by the regime to develop missiles endangering not only Middle East countries but Europe as well. It did not even demand that Tehran put an end to its nuclear program, only that it suspend it for 10 years.
The projected alliance was submitted anew to Trump, probably just before or immediately after the Arab-Islamic summit held at his initiative on May 21, 2017. In his keynote speech, Trump called on all Islamic states to fight Islamic extremism, Islamic terrorist organizations and Iranian incitement. He pledged American support and signed contracts in excess of $350 billion, including $110b. in armaments, to strengthen Saudi security. A united Arab army was to be created to encourage and enable Arab countries to defend themselves, obviating the need to send American troops to the Middle East.
The US has been quietly fleshing out the plan in the past two years, with a view to turning it not only into a security alliance against Iran under American leadership, but to a strategical pact comprising political and economic cooperation for its members. According to a secret White House memorandum leaked by Reuters a year ago, such an impressive alliance would also have helped curb the growing influence of Russia and China in the region.
Unfortunately, differences of opinion between the participants soon defeated their common goal. On June 6, 2017, barely two weeks after the Riyadh meeting, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a total boycott of that country. They accused it of collaborating with Iran and of giving its political and financial support to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Islamic terror organizations, facts that had been known of old and had soured relations between Qatar and the Gulf states as well as with Egypt, which had branded the Brotherhood a terror organization.
During a 2014 summit, Qatar had promised to mend its ways but it did not happen. The small kingdom is also engaged in defense and economic cooperation with Iran since part of its extensive oil resources are under Tehran’s territorial waters in the Gulf. Then there is Oman. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said is on good terms with Iran and facilitates contacts between that country and Gulf states in times of crisis. It is highly doubtful that he would agree to take part in a strategic alliance against the ayatollahs’ regime.
The paucity of news regarding the project in the past two years reflects the obstacles encountered by Washington in its efforts to advance the plan. The summit it intended to hold in January with all potential members to finalize the plan was postponed because of differences of opinions. Then there is renewed tension between America and Egypt, which has announced its intention to purchase Russian Su-35 fighter planes. A few days before Sisi’s visit to Washington, Secretary of State Pompeo said during a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations: “We have made clear to Egypt that if it does purchase these planes it will be subject to sanctions according to the law of our country.”
According to media reports quoting anonymous sources after the April 9 meeting, Egypt decided to withdraw from the project because it has serious doubts about the soundness of an initiative that has yet to produce a detailed proposal and that could intensify tensions with Iran.
It was also suggested that Cairo is worried that Trump might not be reelected and that his successor would disown the project. Both arguments appear spurious. The fact is that the Egyptian president is focusing on more pressing issues for his country. He is making an all-out effort to develop the economy and fight Islamic State in Sinai while keeping Egypt stable and comforting his own position through the constitutional changes he is promoting.
Iran does not constitute an immediate threat, being geographically distant and careful not to attack Egypt as it does Gulf states. Cairo has no reason today to further antagonize Tehran, even if the latter might be a threat at some point in the future.
Furthermore, as long as Qatar does not sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the conflict with Saudi Arabia is not resolved, Egypt would find it difficult to coordinate its actions with the emir. It should be remembered that Cairo did not actively participate in the American-led coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or in the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. It is primarily concerned by what is happening in neighboring countries such as Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Sisi is worried by the endless civil war in Libya, which is allowing contraband weapons and missiles to pass through its long border and reach the Sinai Islamic insurgency. He is cooperating with commander Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan national army and the de facto ruler of Eastern Libya, to try to control their common border despite being unhappy with his renewed offensive against Tripoli, and Sisi probably told him so at their recent meeting. He is also preoccupied with the situation in Sudan. The mass demonstrations that led to the ouster of Omar al-Bashir could send shock waves to the region. Then the Renaissance Dam being built on an affluent of the Blue Nile could dramatically reduce the flow of waters reaching Egypt and in spite of protracted negotiations no compromise has been reached.
The long-term effects of the chill between Sisi and Obama, who suspended part of his country’s military assistance to Egypt and canceled joint military exercises, are still being felt. In protest against the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi and his Brotherhood regime, Obama turned down appeals to continue strategic ties, leading the Egyptian president to turn to Russia, which was only too happy to oblige and once again play an important role in Egypt. It agreed to supply weapons, helicopters and fighter planes, held joint military exercises, financed the building of four nuclear plants west of Alexandria and is taking part in a major industrial project near the Suez Canal. Egypt also let Russia dispatch through its territory special forces to the Libyan border to collect intelligence and give advice to Haftar. In other words, Sisi has to steer carefully between Trump and Putin to advance his own agenda. Such maneuvering comes at a price.
Nevertheless, Egypt has an overwhelming interest to cooperate with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, his natural allies, which afford him much needed economic assistance and help in its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood.
From the US, home to a large Egyptian population, the Egyptian president is keen to keep on receiving the military and civilian assistance and investments in the field of technology, which Russia is unable to provide.
It is therefore unlikely that the Sunni coalition will become a strategic, political and defense alliance on the basis of a detailed and signed agreement, though all its members feel threatened by Iran. The US will have to address this complex situation and get all the parties to agree to a less formal form of cooperation.