In David Lean’s epic 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene which neatly encapsulates the history of the Arab world. (I’d like to say that I’m amazed in our current culture that this film has not been burned for either racism or cultural appropriation or both.)
This is the setup: T. E. Lawrence is being sent from Cairo to be a military adviser to Prince Faisal who is leading the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire. His Bedouin guide is from a tribe called, in the movie, the Hazimi of the Beni Salem. They stop at a desert well which his guide knows belongs to another tribe called the Harith. The guide expresses the opinion that the Harith are “a dirty people.” As they draw water a lone rider appears. Lawrence’s guide panics, fires a pistol at the rider who, in turn, drops the guide with a single rifle shot (let the record show that the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield in .303-caliber is a superlative weapon). The shooter is Sharif Ali of the Harith. As Ali rides away, Lawrence issues this critique of what happened:
So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.
Indeed, the idea of Arab unity is what drove several key figures in the “Arab Revolt” but their desires were scuppered by the Sykes-Picot treaty which carved up the post-Ottoman world into a number of client states of Britain and France. The end of World War II and rapid decolonization brought on another attempt at Arab unity. King Abdallah I of Jordan tried to unite Jordan, Syria and pre-Israel Palestine. The Arab League was founded. Egypt and Syria formally united to form the United Arab Republic. There was an “Arab Federation” (Iraq and Jordan) and a “United Arab States” (the United Arab Republic, the Arab Federation, and Yemen). The only remaining vestige of this is the United Arab Emirates.
Part and parcel of this, of course, was a generation of Arab strongmen in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, internecine warfare, repression, the destruction civil society that may have existed, coups, and the rise of Islamism. Perhaps the shared hatred of Israel was the only thing that kept the Arab world as peaceful as it was.
Now the idea might be getting a reboot from the Trump administration:
When President Trump arrives in Riyadh this week, he will lay out his vision for a new regional security architecture White House officials call an “Arab NATO,” to guide the fight against terrorism and push back against Iran. As a cornerstone of the plan, Trump will also announce one of the largest arms-sales deals in history.
Behind the scenes, the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia have been conducting extensive negotiations, led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The discussions began shortly after the presidential election, when Mohammed, known in Washington as “MBS,” sent a delegation to meet with Kushner and other Trump officials at Trump Tower.
After years of disillusionment with the Obama administration, the Saudi leadership was eager to do business. “They were willing to make a bet on Trump and on America,” a senior White House official said.
The WSJ offers a bit more:
The alliance would include countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are avowed enemies of Israel, as well as Egypt and Jordan, which have longstanding peace treaties with Israel, five officials from Arab countries involved in the discussions said. Other Arab countries could also join the alliance.
For the Arab countries involved, the alliance would have a NATO-style mutual-defense component under which an attack on one member would be treated as an attack on all, though details are still being worked out, the officials said.
The U.S. would offer military and intelligence support to the alliance, beyond the kind of limited backing it has been providing to a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the officials said. But neither the U.S. nor Israel would be part of the mutual-defense pact. [my italics because a lot of discussion I’ve seen on this is based on the idea that the US would have an obligation to defend these countries if they were attacked]
“They’ve been asking diplomatic missions in Washington if we’d be willing to join this force that has an Israeli component,” one Arab diplomat said. “Israel’s role would likely be intelligence sharing, not training or boots on the ground. They’d provide intelligence and targets. That’s what the Israelis are good at.”
Much as the underlying reason for NATO was Soviet aggression, the raison d’être for this alliance is Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have significant Shia minorities who aren’t treated all that well and have rewarded the discrimination by looking to Tehran for leadership. While we look at the ongoing war in Yemen as a sideshow, the Saudis and their allies see it as an Iranian beachhead on the Arabian Peninsula and giving control of the Straits of Hormuz to the Iranians.
There are a lot of upsides to this idea. I’d much rather the Saudis and friends do the heavy lifting in Yemen than actively involve US troops there. A unity of effort and joint political/military command structure will be better able to confront the Iranians. The fact that two of the proposed members have treaties with Israel is significant and if the treaty plus the adjunct presence of Israel in the alliance give the other proposed members reason to seek formal peace with Israel that would be an unmitigated good.
But when it comes to practicalities it is hard to see it happening. Actions taken by the Saudis to resist the Iranians could easily result in counteractions by the Iranians against the very fragile Jordanian regime. None of the regimes are particularly stable. Absent a real peace treaty, how well do we really want to train Arab forces that might one day attack Israel? When the fight shifts from resisting Iran to resisting Islamism, to what extent do we really want to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia?
So color me skeptical on this idea as a long term plan. Getting these nations to start cooperating in rolling back Iranian influence is a positive step forward and I’d consider this venture a rousing success if we accomplish that, but I’m betting on “a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel” having the inside track.