Trump wants to create an ‘Arab NATO.’ What exactly does that mean?

Goals and membership TBD.

President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump meets with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump will be unveiling plans for a new “Arab NATO” during his trip to Saudi Arabia later this week, according to a Wednesday report from the Washington Post on.

White House officials told the Washington Post that discussions about creating an Arab military alliance have taken place between the Trump administration and the Saudi government since Trump’s victory last November. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and White House senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner have been leading the discussions.

A main objective of the Trump administration, the Washington Post reported, is “to put forth a framework and basic principles for a unified Sunni coalition of countries, which would set the stage for a more formal NATO-like organizational structure down the line.” White House officials said the organization will “guide the fight against terrorism and push back against Iran,” but did not elaborate further.

There remain a lot of questions about what the organization would look like, including what it would mean for Iran’s role in the fight against ISIS, for the Saudi intervention and bombing of Yemen, and for the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine. The White House says that many details of the organization still need to be determined, including the member countries.

Initial countries that will participate, according to the Post, could include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan. But “a unified Sunni coalition” could leave out Arab countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, or even Yemen.

Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told ThinkProgress he had concerns about who the member countries would be— and whether they would be able to find common ground.

“There’s nothing wrong with the idea of more military interaction among Muslim states, or in this case Arab states, that’s to be applauded,” Vatanka said. “Any kind of integration designed to counter something as threatening as the menace of terrorism, should be applauded, but those of us who are analysts have to step back and say, how plausible is it?”

Vatanka pointed to differences between the UAE and Saudi Arabia that could come between them in such an alliance, for example.

“They do have certain common objections: keeping the Iranians at bay, that’s certainly one that they agree on. But would they agree on a long-term solution to Yemen? I’m not sure about that, time will show,” he said. “If we bring Egypt into it, well that’s a wild horse… One key issue that the Gulf Arabs have been in the same boat on is, Bashar al-Assad has to go — that’s not the Egyptian position today. So [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] looks at Assad as a lesser evil, and looks at anything that is perceived to have any hints of Islamism — Muslim Brothers or anything — he fears that much more than he would ever fear Bashar al-Assad. That might be an issue of friction.”

“It comes down to who is going to be a part of this, it comes down to what specific issues are going to be focused on,” he added. “If you sort of become more general and have to agree on a whole host of issues, then that’s where you can expect friction, tensions, and you know, the weakening of such an alliance from within.”

The United States would likely offer military aid and intelligence to the Arab alliance, but not be a member country, according to previous reports.

The news that Trump wants to help create an Arab NATO is strange, however, given that Trump repeatedly complained about NATO on the campaign trail. Last March, he called NATO “obsolete” and “unfair, economically” and said the United States should rethink its involvement in the organization. A few months later, however, he said that the United States should work with NATO in the fight against ISIS.

After he was elected, Trump stopped saying NATO was obsolete, but it’s still not clear he knows exactly how the organization works. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington, D.C. in March, Trump said Germany “owes vast sums of money” to NATO and the United States for its defense. NATO is an international defense agreement, not an economic transaction, and member countries do not owe money to the organization or to any other member country. Rather, each country contributes based on its own capability.

In addition to the creation of an “Arab NATO,” the Trump administration is currently planning the largest arms sales in U.S. history ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia on Friday. A series of arms deals for Saudi Arabia worth more than $100 billion is near completion, a senior White House official told Reuters last week. The final details are still unclear, but the total deal could be worth more than $300 billion over the next ten years.