King Abdullah II of Jordan said he backs the establishment of a West Asia military alliance similar to NATO, and that it can be assembled of like-minded countries.
The kingdom works actively with NATO and sees itself as its partner, having fought shoulder to shoulder with the alliance’s troops for decades.
“I’d like to see more countries in the area come into that mix,” he said. “I would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.”
But Oraib Rantawi, the founder and director-general of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, told The Media Line that the king’s statements are “confusing” and “came as a surprise to Jordanian public opinion.
“Jordanians are in a constant confrontation state of mind regarding Israel against the background of Israel’s policy in the occupied territories and escalation in Jerusalem, in particular the systematic Israeli targeting of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Hashemite custodianship of Al-Aqsa Mosque and repeated Israeli statements that are destroying the two-state solution,” Rantawi said.
He questioned the timing of the “talk of a Middle Eastern alliance,” wondering what has changed for Jordan that it wants to join such a group.
Abdullah, in an interview with CNBC on Friday, said the coalition must have a clear and defined role.
“The mission statement has to be very, very clear. Otherwise, it confuses everybody,” he said.
Rantawi said, “The king in the interview did not reveal any details. The conversation was vague. But just talking about a Middle Eastern NATO, you put things in the context of targeting Iran in an alliance with Israel.”
He added that other Arab governments had made their positions on such a pact clear.
“What is remarkable is that we do not see similar enthusiasm on the part of the Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, or Arab states like Egypt, which previously announced that it would not be a member of an axis or alliance against a particular country,” said Rantawi.
Washington held a secret meeting of top military officials from Israel and Arab countries to “explore how they could coordinate against Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing officials from the US and the region.
The talks were held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, bringing Arab and Israeli military officials together for the first time, according to the report.
The Journal added, “The UAE is not aware of any formal discussions relating to any such regional military alliance.”
A new diplomatic and security alliance would be part of reshaping the Middle East as former enemies seek to establish a united front to contain a common foe, Iran, at a time when the perception in the region is that Washington is abandoning them as it shifts it attention to China, while both Beijing and Moscow work to fill the gap left by the US in the region.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine beginning in February and the subsequent need for new sources of energy to fill the vacuum left by sanctions on Russian oil and gas, the Biden administration is looking eastward toward the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia to increase their output.
But the Gulf states had been furious with the US over its diminished role in the region, and the fear that Washington may be willing to sign a nuclear deal with Iran that doesn’t take into account their concerns.
Biden is scheduled to visit the region next month, with stops in Israel, the West Bank, and a crucial two-day meeting in Jeddah with Saudi, Gulf, and other Arab leaders as he tries to repair tense ties with Riyadh and bridge the gap between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Some observers say the Middle East is on the cusp of major changes, arguing that with Iran being a common threat to many Arab states and Israel, this may lead to the creation of a new alliance that includes them against their enemy.
Abdullah was the first to openly talk about this alliance. He previously warned publicly against the formation of the so-called Shiite crescent composed of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, suggesting the response should be to form a Sunni crescent.
However, Rantawi said talk about a new alliance that Amman is behind or supports is concerning and confusing to many Jordanians.
Retired Iraqi Maj. Gen. Majid al-Qubaisi told The Media Line that Biden’s expected visit to the region will largely focus on this topic.
“Talks are taking place and it is expected that this alliance will include Gulf states, in addition to Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. Its goal is to form a frontline to confront Iran’s interference and expansion in its neighboring regions in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon,” he said.
But establishing this alliance, which is strongly supported by Israel, will not be easy, the general continued.
“This alliance has many obstacles, and the two most important countries to focus on are Iraq and Oman. Oman is a neutral country and it has relations with everyone, and it has no animosity with anyone as it has good relations with Iran and the United States of America,” Qubaisi said.
Although Oman does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the country in 2018.
The Iraqi parliament passed a law last month that makes it a crime to normalize relations with Israel, and violations can be punishable by death or life imprisonment.
“Iraq is well-known for its [difficult] political situation, and it is known that Iran has a great influence in Iraq, and it is one of the pivot countries for Iran. This means that entering such an alliance would face political and security challenges in Iraq,” said Qubaisi.
Such an alliance would “not be homogeneous in the long run,” he said.
There are also countries that have good economic relations with Iran, such as Qatar and the UAE.
“Until now, this issue is still ambiguous, but we are looking forward to Biden’s visit to the region next month until things become clearer,” Qubaisi said.
Israeli defense analyst Amir Oren told The Media Line there’s another roadblock that could prevent the military pact’s creation and hamper cooperative efforts in the region.
“This is not going to happen as long as Israel holds occupied territories and doesn’t have recognized permanent borders on its eastern and northern boundaries,” Oren said.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said his country is building a US-sponsored regional air defense network, the Middle East Air Defense Alliance, which will include some Arab countries.
“That means collaboration in intelligence and information sharing, radar early warning. Perhaps the acquisition of some weapon systems,” said Oren.
Gantz did not name the Arab countries that might join the air defense alliance.
Many observers say its creation will face major resistance.
“Kuwait and Oman are not about to enter into an axis against Iran alongside Israel, and the Kuwaiti position on normalization with Israel is very strong. These countries also have relations with Iran, and their demographics do not allow them to join such an alliance. Qatar shares with Iran the largest joint gas field, and Doha will not risk its good economic relations with Tehran,” said Rantawi.
All this comes amid reports that talks between Europe and Iran on its nuclear program are expected to resume soon, which Rantawi says makes it highly unlikely that Washington will push the creation of a formal regional alliance.
“Is it reasonable for the United States to sponsor and pressure toward a Middle Eastern NATO targeting the country it is negotiating with now over its nuclear program in order to reach an agreement?” he asked.
Rantawi doesn’t think Biden’s visit will yield a breakthrough announcement such as normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“Saudi Arabia, in my opinion, might take timid, limited, and modest normalization steps, and this is the most that could result from Biden’s visit to Jeddah: opening Saudi airspace to Israeli civil aviation, and perhaps some arrangements for the pilgrimage for the Muslim citizens of Israel,” he said.
Oren explained that for the talked-about Middle East alliance to succeed, all members must be on an equal footing.
“A NATO arrangement preordains a consensus-based decision-making process with each country having a veto over the others. This is not what Israel wants, this is not what the US wants. It’s just a fancy name for a very limited function which will come out of the Biden visit,” Oren said.