What Next for the Middle East Strategic Alliance?

Summary: Regardless of who is elected president, Washington may choose to let lapse a struggling U.S. initiative aimed at achieving greater security cooperation between MENA states.

We are grateful to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen for today’s commentary. He is a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.  His most recent book, published by Hurst in February, is Qatar and the Gulf Crisis.

Foreign policy has taken a backseat in the presidential campaign, perhaps understandably given the scale of domestic pressures coursing through U.S. politics this year, exemplified by the final presidential debate in which the Middle East barely featured at all and discussion revolved around China and North Korea. And yet, the question of whether President Trump is re-elected to serve a second term or if Joe Biden forms an administration will likely make a difference in policy issues from the ongoing war in Yemen to the future of the Iran nuclear deal and the possibility of resolution at last to the bitter Gulf rift.

One issue that has escaped the limelight in the context of the election is the future of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) as one of the ‘workarounds’ the Trump administration put in place after 2017 to try and minimize the impact of the Gulf crisis on its regional Arab partners. MESA is associated closely with the Trump administration and with John Bolton’s time at the National Security Council and has struggled to get off the ground as participant countries viewed each other with suspicion, there were differences of opinion over what its scope of activities should cover, and Egypt withdrew in April 2019.

A Middle East Strategic Alliance meeting in February 2019
Often mislabeled an ‘Arab NATO’ in media reporting or miscast as an exclusively anti-Iran initiative, MESA was conceived as a way to secure U.S. interests on a smaller footprint by increasing regional cooperation and getting partner countries to ‘step up’ on key issues. The establishment of MESA was consistent with the efforts of the past three U.S. administrations to enhance interoperability among partner nations in the Gulf as well as the stated desire of both Republicans and Democrats in recent years to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Its creation also reflected the reality in 2018 that the blockade of Qatar meant that the U.S. could no longer work toward this end with its Gulf partners alone.

While U.S. officials envisaged MESA consisting of multiple tracks covering governance, economic, and energy in addition to security issues, the Saudis and Emiratis initially saw – and portrayed – it as a security agreement alone. This raised concerns among other states – especially Qatar and Oman but also Kuwait – about potential domination from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and brought to the surface the fact that there was no regional consensus about a common baseline threat perception. All partners expressed a reluctance to sign up to anything that might reduce or replace their own bilateral relationships with the U.S., and there was also a degree of suspicion in Gulf capitals that the economic and energy tracks might require them to support Egypt and Jordan.

Officially, MESA remains ‘on the table’ and meetings of working groups dedicated to the tracks have taken place, although the pandemic and restrictions on travel meant progress has been haltingly slow in 2020. At one meeting in 2020 the National Security Council rejected a Saudi proposal that MESA be limited to a security agreement alone. In recent months, however, a series of bilateral strategic dialogues held by the U.S. with individual Gulf States and the inclusion of a ‘Strategic Agenda for the Middle East’ in the UAE-Israel normalization agreement have prompted further questions as to whether MESA still exists, is being reconfigured, or has quietly been laid to rest.

Qatar and the U.S. convened their first strategic dialogue in January 2018 in the aftermath of the June 2017 blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, and President Trump’s initial support for the Saudis and Emiratis, a move which shocked the Qatari leadership to the core. Qatari officials responded quickly to repair and strengthen relations across the U.S. political and military spectrum and the result has been an annual dialogue that met most recently in Washington, D.C. on September 14. After the September meeting, Tim Lenderking, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, stated that the U.S. hoped to designate Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally, a significant enhancement of status previously extended by the George W. Bush administration to Kuwait and Bahrain in 2002 and 2004.

The Qatar-U.S. strategic dialogue preceded by one day the signing of the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House by President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani. The text of the agreement signed by Israel with the UAE included a reference to both countries joining ‘the United States and others, as appropriate,’ in launching a Strategic Agenda for the Middle East ‘to expand regional diplomatic, trade, stability and other cooperation.’ No such declaration appears in the much shorter agreement signed by Bahrain with Israel, which may reflect the fact that it was drawn up in haste after Bahrain joined the Abraham Accords on September 11, just four days before the signing ceremony.

Kirsten Fontenrose served on the National Security Council as Senior Director for Gulf Affairs in 2018 and played a key role in the initial formulation of MESA. Writing after the UAE-Israel deal was announced in August, Fontenrose suggested that the Strategic Agenda for the Middle East amounted to a ‘reconfiguration’ of MESA that this time ‘brings Israel to the table.’ Fontenrose speculated also that the Emiratis might try ‘to prohibit Qatar from becoming a party to the Strategic Agenda.’

References to the Strategic Agenda with the UAE and Israel and the potential designation of Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally suggest that divisions among regional partners means that U.S. officials are again prioritizing bilateral relationships over multilateral engagement, as evidenced by the holding of separate strategic dialogues with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on October 14 and 20, respectively. And while a Biden administration likely will mean greater support for multilateralism in U.S. foreign policymaking, the prospects for such approaches appear bleak so long as the Gulf States and other regional partners remain unable to bridge the differences that have come to define the Trump era in the Middle East.

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