The United States is quietly pushing ahead with a bid to create a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan in part to counter Iran’s expansion in the region.
The White House wants to see deeper cooperation between the countries on missile defence, military training, counterterrorism, and other issues such as strengthening regional economic and diplomatic ties, four sources told the Reuters news agency.
The plan to forge what officials in the White House and the Middle East have called an “Arab NATO” of Sunni Muslim allies will likely raise tensions between the US and Shia Iran, two countries increasingly at odds since President Donald Trump took office.
The administration’s hope is that the effort, tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), might be discussed at a summit provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12-13, sources said.
The White House confirmed it was working on the concept of the alliance with “our regional partners now and have been for several months”.
Saudi officials raised the idea of a security pact in advance of Trump’s visit last year to Saudi Arabia, where he announced a massive arms deal, but the proposal did not get off the ground, a US source said.
“MESA will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said, cautioning it remains uncertain whether the security plan will be finalised by mid-October.
Similar initiatives by previous US administrations to develop a more formal alliance with Gulf and Arab allies have failed in the past.
The alliance would put emphasis on Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE working closer together with the Trump administration on confronting Iran.
It is unclear how the alliance could immediately counter Tehran, but the Trump administration and its Sunni Muslim allies have joint interests in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, as well as defending Gulf shipping lanes through which much of the world’s oil supplies are shipped.
A senior Iranian official said, “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 US-backed Arab countries”.
Potentially a big obstacle to the planned alliance is a 13-month-old rift pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar, home to the largest US airbase in the region.
While one source said the administration is concerned the quarrel could be an obstacle to the initiative, he and an Arab official both said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had assured Washington the rift would not pose a problem to the alliance.
The NSC spokesperson denied the rift was a hurdle.
As Trump pursues his America First policy, the White House is eager to have US allies worldwide shoulder more of the burden in confronting regional security threats.
The UAE is ready to deploy more troops across the Middle East to counter its foes as it believes it can no longer rely on Western allies such as the US and Britain, UAE minister Anwar Gargash said on Thursday.
Setting up a regional anti-missile defence shield, which the US and Gulf countries have discussed for years without result, would be a goal for the alliance, a source familiar with the plan said, as well as training to upgrade the countries’ militaries.
Tension with Iran has increased since Trump announced in May that the US was pulling out of a 2015 international deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
On Monday, Iran dismissed a warning from Trump that it risked dire consequences “the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before” if it made threats against the US.