As counterpoint to the Khashoggi affair, there is a symphony of sorts being played in the Middle East. One of the cornerstones of Trump’s foreign policy is to encourage the formation of an Arab NATO.
Not that these countries have anything to do with the North Atlantic ocean, but what the Trump administration felt was needed was a NATO-like alliance of the Sunni Arab states (supported by the United States) in order to stand as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and aggression in the region. Israel would then serve as an “unrecognized” quasi member of the alliance.
Trump’s critics have been ridiculing the idea since it was presented, but lo and behold it looks like this Arab “NATO” is actually starting to form. To begin with, Saudi Arabia, the fulcrum of this proposed alliance due to its location and financial clout, has cobbled together a mini alliance to fight the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen just across its southern border.
The major players are Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but Egypt has offered some help in terms of patrolling the Red Sea to try to prevent Iran’s smuggling of weapons and/or Hezbollah fighters into Houthi strong holds.
The United States, of course, in addition to selling weapons to its Arab allies, has provided intelligence, particularly satellite information on Houthi positions to the Saudis and helped them with inflight refueling. Al-Jazeera has reported that the Israelis have not only helped provide intelligence, but have actually trained UAE forces.
Egypt Host Pan-Arab Military Exercises
Trump’s hopes for an Arab “NATO” took a huge step forward in late October when Egypt announced it would be hosting military exercises involving six Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan, in addition to Egypt. Morocco and Lebanon were to send observers to these exercises slated to be held from November 3-16. Egypt has declined to say if these exercises would or would not develop into an actual, formal alliance.
Conspicuous in their absence were Qatar and the Sultanate of Oman. Qatar would not have been invited due to its on-going “Cold War” with Saudi Arabia and its allies (Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE). The Sultanate of Oman skipped the exercises, because of its historical oddity.
Neither Sunni Nor Shiite
The people of Oman belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam. The Ibadis claim that their ancestors broke off from mainstream Islam before the Sunni-Shiite split at the time of Caliph Ali’s death in 661 AD. They differ from both Sunnis and Shiites in that the concept of “jihad” never became apart of their Islam.
At any rate, the Ibadis were persecuted by both the Sunnis and Shites and basically ethnic cleansed from all Islamic lands except the isolated southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula that now makes up the Sultanate of Oman. Because of the Omanis peculiarities, they have traditionally remained aloof from all Sunni-Shiite squabbles.
But that may soon change.
Enter Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
Al-Jazeera has reported on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the Sultanate of Oman to subliminally place Oman in a negative light in the minds of its viewers. However, Dr. Muhammad as-Sa’eed Idrees, writing for Egypt’s state newspaper
Al-Ahram noted several positive subthemes to this visit. One is that Israel is sending a message to Iran that “if you hang around in Syria, then we’ll be at your doorstep in Oman.” That message in itself sends yet another message, and this is that Netanyahu’s visit may also be pulling the Sultanate of Oman into the Pan Arab alliance against Iran.
Dr. Idrees also pointed out that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stressed to his politicians and media people not to criticize the Sultanate of Oman for hosting Netanyahu. This may indicate that Abbas could be softening his position on Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”
At the very least though, as Dr. Idrees pointed out, Netanyahu’s visit may also hint at the possibility of Oman joining Egypt and Jordan as Arab countries that have granted Israel official recognition.
The question that still remains, however, is will the Khashoqji affair derail these positive developments as well as the potential for an Arab NATO?