It is a good idea in theory: Assemble a coalition of Sunni Arab states, call it the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), and create a multinational military force meant to serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, and extremism.
Such an alliance would finally allow the U.S. to lessen its Middle East footprint, as the 2017 National Security Strategy recommended, and allow the Pentagon to redeploy some capabilities toward China and Russia — two of the “Big 4” countries that pose the greatest menace to the United States according to the latest U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. It is also hoped that such a self-sufficient Arab military pact would help bring some much-needed stability to the region.
Where there are common interests and shared threats, such a coalition can succeed. The obvious example is NATO, which for decades was unified in its mission to hold the Soviet Union at bay. This raises the question, however, of what happens if one of the states in the emerging alliance not only views threats differently but is actively engaged in undermining other members of the coalition. A military alliance can only be as strong as its most corrosive link. This is the kind of mistrust the U.S. is grappling with in regard to Turkey, given the latter’s debatable role as a NATO ally under President Erdogan.
The latest iteration of MESA is supposed to be an amalgamation of Sunni Muslim forces, including the six Gulf Cooperation Council members — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — in addition to Egypt and Jordan. Israel is not included in the alliance even though it has the most capable conventional military in the region.
Nevertheless, the Jewish state believes that Iran constitutes the primary regional menace, which is a viewpoint shared by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which seek to be the primary driver of MESA’s policies.
Look closer at the other members of the coalition and one will find widely divergent views on the risk posed by Iran. Kuwait and Oman are less than enthusiastic in their support for MESA, and both favor engaging with Tehran; Egypt and Jordan favor a more accommodating stance as well. Views of the Muslim Brotherhood also vary.
Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have cracked down on the local branches of the pernicious Islamist movement, with the latter working to make the Gulf a Muslim Brotherhood–free zone.
Kuwait and Jordan, on the other hand, allow the Brotherhood to operate legitimately in foreign or domestic politics. Bahrain is similarly accommodating of the Muslim Brotherhood, but is aligned with Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s vision on the need to push back against Iran.
But there’s only one MESA country that actively promotes the Muslim Brotherhood abroad in order to undermine other members of the coalition while sharing a proverbial bed with Iran: the Arabian Gulf emirate of Qatar. In fact, Qatar’s pursuit of these pernicious policies — and other problematic actions — created enough bad regional blood that most MESA countries have severed ties with the emirate at one point or another and still remain at odds with, if not downright hostile to, the country’s Al-Thani ruling family.
Since this latest attempt to establish MESA began in 2017, two primary schools of thought have emerged in Washington to address the Qatar stumbling block. The first believes that papering over the differences is the best path forward because anything that will contribute to a united front is a net positive, not only when it comes to facing Iran but also when it comes to enhancing the regional buy-in on the economic portion of the Trump administration’s soon-to-be-released Israeli–Palestinian peace plan.
Moreover, since no one has clean hands in the region, singling out Qatar is not called for. The second school of thought is that Qatar should be welcomed back into America’s good graces only once it alters its behavior. In this reading, some hands are dirtier than others.