In the run-up to US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this month, Jordan's King Abdullah II said he "would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East Nato." The idea of a Middle East Nato – a Nato-like military alliance among various configurations of states in the region – was floated as recently as the Trump administration but has thus far failed to materialise.
Given that the kings and autocrats of the region deeply mistrust each other, especially on matters of security and intelligence-sharing, it remains a far-fetched notion. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said such an alliance might require an "Article 5-like commitment from the US" – referring to the principle that all Nato members must treat an attack against one as an attack on all – and that "Congress would never agree to such a treaty."
But while creating a Middle East Nato remains out of the question, Abdullah's statement reflected an optimism for Biden's trip. Perhaps it would at least yield a regional air defence integration plan among Gulf countries and Israel. Even that smaller goal, though – which seemed achievable in light of recent US-backed defence cooperation in the region – did not come to fruition. In large part, this is because Arab leaders are wary of joining hands publicly with Israel to create what would effectively be a military front against Iran.
Iran's expansion in the region through militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen has rattled some Arab nations so greatly that they have begun to see Israel, a historic enemy with superior military capabilities, as a potential defence ally. The Biden administration's strategy has thus been to encourage defence cooperation among US allies – including Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – while also attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
Although similar ideas have been discussed in the past under several US presidents, the prospect of an air defence group has gained momentum in recent years as Saudi and Emirati cities and oil facilities, as well as US bases and troops in the region, have come under more frequent drone strikes by Iran's proxies. These drones are small and hard to intercept, so it is only natural that defence cooperation is increasingly being considered.
In fact, defence cooperation to combat the Iranian drone threat is already taking place, the New York Times reported this month. In March 2021, Israel foiled an Iranian drone attack with help from an Arab nation – probably Jordan, the Times reported – when Israeli jets were allowed to use Arab air space to shoot down the drones.
Wider defence cooperation is on the rise as well. A year after Israel normalised relations with the UAE and Bahrain with the Abraham Accords in 2020, all three countries and the United States held their first joint naval drill. This February, Israel participated in US-led naval drills with Saudi Arabia and Oman for the first time. Soon after, a senior Israel Defence Forces official was posted to Bahrain – the first time an Israeli officer has been stationed in an Arab country. Then, in March, military officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel came together in Egypt in secret to discuss a potential air defence alliance, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Then just days before Biden's visit, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had joined other countries – which he did not name – in what he called the Middle East Air Defence alliance, a US-led regional air defence group. According to Gantz, member countries would be sharing intelligence about incoming Iranian missiles and drones in order to warn each other about attacks. Expectations were high that an announcement on defence cooperation was imminent during Biden's visit.
But all the talk amounted to little during the visit. The joint statement following Biden's summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in Riyadh said GCC members and Washington would enhance "joint deterrence capabilities" but made no mention of a regional air defence mechanism including Israel.
As Lazar Berman aptly noted in the Times of Israel, "The much-discussed regional security alliance against Iran looks to be far less advanced than Israel would have hoped. Mentions of the framework during the visit were exceedingly vague, a far cry from a Middle Eastern Nato."
Several analysts told Foreign Policy that the United States and Israel overestimated Arab nations' willingness to publicly enter a defense alliance with Israel before a resolution to the Palestinian conflict. "Gulf countries don't trust each other and that is why such defence alliances have not materialised in the past despite US attempts," said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But now, Farouk said, "matters have been complicated further because the US has added Israel to the mix. … Most GCC countries are not comfortable with publicly being a part of an alliance with Israel. Several Saudi officials have told me that they are not okay with it."
Anchal Vohra is a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.