Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA)
October 15, 2018
Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA)
Also dubbed the “Arab NATO”, the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) is a proposed regional security alliance promoted by the Trump administration to include the six Gulf Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, in addition to the United States. The foundational goal of this proposed organization is to counter “Iran’s terrorism and extremism” while working on bringing stability to the Middle East. MESA brings together the two leading GCC states i.e., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a strategic alliance with the United States to achieve a long term Iran containment objective. Structurally, in theory at least, MESA aims to follow the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) model with the United States acting as the guarantor of peace and stability. The first summit of MESA is planned to take place in January, as confirmed by U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf affairs Tim Lenderking.
Yet, although the idea of an Arab NATO has been in discussion for over two years now, there are important unknowns about this project considering the political disagreement fracturing the GCC, with KSA, UAE and Bahrain on one side of the ideological divide, and Qatar, Oman and Kuwait on the other. It still remains unclear which countries will finally constitute this group and what type of security guarantees MESA will offer its member states. The idea of such a security alliance was officially advocated at the end of the Arab Islamic American Summit with “the objective of establishing peace and security in the region and the world”. Excluding the U.S., the alliance’s annual defense spending is supposed to exceed $100bn and it is expected to command over 300,000 troops, 5,000 tanks and 1,000 combat aircraft.
MESA faces important challenges. The most important is the systemic intra-Arab tensions that have historically made it difficult to establish an effective regional security alliance. The clearest example of this is the mounting tension between Qatar and the other GCC states, in addition to tensions between Turkey and Egypt, and the regional ongoing proxy wars in both Yemen and Libya. On a practical level, Egypt, Jordan, and especially Qatar won’t be able to commit their defense capabilities against Iran, due primarily to Turkish, Russian, and Chinese influence.
Reactions from Tehran
An op-ed by Mohammad Ghaderi & Javad Heiranniain in Tehran Times, a conservative English Language daily from Iran, hinted at Iran’s existing ties with Jordan and Egypt, recommending to Iran that Tehran should “try to keep the level of hostility to a minimum with these states” while trying to “create a meaningful coalition with Turkey, Afghanistan and Qatar as well as Iraq.” Meanwhile, a senior Iranian official told Reuters that “under the pretext of securing stability in the Middle East, Americans and their regional allies are fomenting tension in the region.” He said the approach would have “no result” beyond “deepening the gaps between Iran, its regional allies and the U.S.-backed Arab countries.”
MESA does answer a few U.S. security concerns in the Middle East as it shifts the defense burden to trusted allies in the region. Yet, without a comprehensive GCC reconciliation it is difficult to form a scenario where MESA is indeed a functioning organization under U.S. supervision beyond the possible ceremonial launch in the near future. Additional interest of stationing troops in GCC has been expressed by Great Britain, especially with regards to establishing a U.K. military base in Kuwait. China has also expressed interest in establishing presence on two Kuwaiti islands. There are structural and logistical challenges facing MESA, not to mention mounting Chinese interest in securing its oil imports from the Gulf region.