How Would an "Arab NATO" Play Out for Azerbaijan?

An unexpected attempt to isolate Qatar, as well as the war in Yemen, are both indicators of change and perhaps of a developing conflict in the Middle East. 

So far, the Qatari crisis has caused discord between the countries of the Persian Gulf and, apparently, will become another source of difficulty in the region. 

The disruption of diplomatic relations between these countries and the closure of land borders with Qatar raises the question of what Washington wants to achieve. 

German political observer Matthias von Hein says that the recent speech of Donald Trump in Riyadh has permanently buried Obama’s attempts to reestablish relations with Iran, and marks a radical turnabout in American policy with the Arab world. 

Tension in the region has given credibility and relevance to the idea of creating a unified ‘Arab army’. And while Trump has not openly called for the creation of such a force, some claim that he touched on the idea of creating an ‘Arab NATO’ at private meetings with the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Morocco and others as an instrument of counter-terrorism protection and peacekeeping in the region. 

This brings new challenges for Azerbaijan, which require a balanced approach.

An April in Tehran meeting with Iran’s Minister of Defense Hussein Dehghan is evidence of Azerbaijan’s military cooperation with Iran.

During the meeting, the Azerbaijani delegation declared the great importance of the inviolability of the borders of the two countries. 

In turn, Dehghan replied that, "We should not allow external forces to violate military cooperation between Iran and Azerbaijan." 

In addition, in June, Azerbaijan held a presentation of the public organization "Cooperation of Azerbaijan and Arab countries”, whose task it is to develop friendly relations between Azerbaijan and the Arab world. 

It is indicative that the creation of this organization took place this year, which, on the initiative of President Ilham Aliyev, has been declared the “Year of Islamic Solidarity”. 

Thus, one cannot exclude the possibility that Azerbaijan would participate in an all-Arab military alliance, if one takes into consideration the fact that the Azerbaijani president also attended the summit in Riyadh and met with the US president.

However, there are a number of issues with such an alliance. T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) wrote in his memoirs that “we could not mix or unit the [Arab] tribes because of their mutual distrust and suspicion.”

This remains true today. 

In October 1949, members of the newly formed League of Arab States (LAS) planned to conclude a military alliance, and in 1950 Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen signed the "Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation Treaty" directed against Israel. However, the Six-Day War of 1967 showed the manifold problems of coordination between these states, which for many years discredited the idea of such an army. 

In 1976, another attempt was made by the LAS to launch deterrence forces into Lebanon. Again, the same problem arose, because these forces consisted mainly of Syrian military and talk began that Damascus was using the League's mandate for its own interests. 

Nevertheless, in 2015, on the initiative of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an agreement was reached on establishing a unified Arab army. It is assumed that this will be a 40,000-strong military grouping, including a collective air force ranging from 500 to 1,000, to 5,000 naval forces and about 35,000 land forces, including special purpose units. 

Apparently, the interethnic military formation will be based on the capabilities of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh will provide financing and military equipment. And Egypt - ground and, to a certain extent, aviation contingents. Since both countries mainly use American military equipment, there will be no problems with logistical compatibility. However, the management issue will become an obvious problem. The advantage of the Egyptian armed forces is the army "caste" system, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, where questions of clan and tribal loyalty take precedence: combining a single command of two armies with different traditions will not prove easy. 

The main question is: what tasks will this joint military contingent perform, and against whom will these actions be directed?

Everyone agrees that the main target is Iran. 

On the eve of Trump’s May visit to Saudi Arabia, Iranian Minister of Defense Hussein Dehghan accused the “US, Zionist and Saudi regimes” of creating “zones for the development of crisis, war and bloodshed...within the framework of an Arab NATO”. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani further criticized the summit in Riyadh, condemning the proclamation of the Wahhabi monarchy as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world and pointing out that that this country [Saudi Arabia] "hardly knows what elections are" and its inhabitants "have never seen a voting box."

It should be noted that the domestic political situation in Iran also has significance. 

The hardliners, through Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps control Iran's security policy, especially in regional conflicts. Iran's likely response should be expected to strengthen the support of the Shiite militia in Iraq, Syria and Yemen in order to tie down Saudi and allied Arab forces there and possibly weaken solidarity in the "Arab NATO". 

Iran still believes that the creation of an effective anti-Iranian coalition is an unlikely event, but nonetheless Iran is preparing for a possible conflict and is looking for allies in this case. 

Its first ally in this case would be Russia. 

The invitation of Iran's Defense Minister to Moscow for participation in the April International Security Conference speaks to the closeness of the positions of Moscow and Tehran, at least in security issues. 

And it is possible that, if necessary, Tehran can again provide Russian aircraft with the opportunity to use the “Shahid Noje” air base in Hamadan. Another indicator of the allied relations between Russia and Iran is the purchase of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia and plans for the purchase of aircraft manufactured by “Sukhoi” enterprises.

But it’s not just about Iran. For many of the countries of the Persian Gulf, the main issue is the conflict in Yemen, while the countries of North Africa and Egypt are concerned about Libya and Syria. 

For Egypt, the primary threats are the "Vilayat Sinai" (a branch of the so-called "Islamic State") operating in Egypt and the Hasam movement, which are capable of destabilizing the situation in the country. 

In addition, Cairo is concerned about tensions in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which threaten to reduce revenues from the exploitation of the Suez Canal, exceeding $5 billion annually. Consequently, Egypt is an interested party in the Yemeni conflict and in other possible hot spots of the region. The united Arab contingent could solve all these problems. 

However, some, less powerful Arab countries fear that participation in the "Arab NATO" will, to a certain extent, entail a loss of independence in their foreign policy decisions. 

Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran threatens to lead to serious consequences for the entire Middle East, as both countries indirectly participate in two wars - in Syria and in Yemen. 

According to experts, trust between them has finally been exhausted in the struggle for regional leadership. The leadership of both countries adheres to a strict and rigid course, rejecting dialogue and compromise. 

Although the concept of an “Arab NATO” may seem attractive, its ability to ensure stability in the Middle East is doubtful. 

At best, it may act as a SWAT team, putting down potential threats before they develop. 

In these conditions, it is more than doubtful that Azerbaijan, having its own problems, will become an active participant in the general Arab army. 

Baku adheres to a non-aligned position among the main world powers. In addition, a unified army would require unified funding. It is unlikely that the poorer countries of the Persian Gulf will be able to afford this.

And though Azerbaijan is not the poorest country among them, it is still unlikely to spend especially if the funds will be used to act against its southern neighbor, with which Azerbaijan is associated not only economically but also with an ethnic intimacy. 

In addition, Azerbaijan is connected with Georgia and Turkey in the field of military construction and cooperation. It is not known whether integration with the Arab army would contradict the commitments already made to Tbilisi and Ankara; not to mention the factor of Russia.