Joint Arab military forces deepens the Saudi-Iran conflict

Joint Arab military forces deepens the Saudi-Iran conflict

Arab leaders often concluded their annual Arab Summit meetings with verbal statements regarding the region’s issues, rather than taking any substantial measures. However, this year’s summit held on the 28th of March in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, was marked by the establishment of an Arab joint military force.

The decision does not only show the depth of the security challenges faced by Arab nations, but also highlights the changing foreign policy of Arab regional powers in the Middle East. The decision, taken amid several geopolitical transformations, has yet to show its impact on the Middle East’s future.

The decision to create a joint Arab military force was announced by the Egyptian president, former general and strong promoter of the idea, Abdel Fatah al Sissi, on March 29th from Sharm El Sheikh, while the Saudi Air Forces were bombarding the Shiite Houthi militias that took control of large swathes in Yemen, and while the Egyptian Navy was blocking the Yemeni coast and controlling Bab Al Mandab Red Sea pathway.

The decision comes at a difficult time for the entire region, plagued by a rise of jihadist militancy and insurgency; regional disputes fuelled by sectarian tension; economic fragility amplified by falling oil prices; and the long-existing political instability.

Despite these challenges, shared by most of the Arab world’s countries, this decision was not subject to unanimity, or even broad agreement, amongst the Arab leaders whose positions on the different regional issues show the depth of the gap between the agendas of the different states.

Regarding the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which was requested by the Yemeni leadership to curb the advance of the prevailing Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels, positions differ widely. The majority of the Gulf States, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, supported the air strikes.

However, Iraq, which is currently led by a pro-Iran government presided by a Shiite prime-minister, has been vocal about its opposition to the principle of military intervention in general and rejection of the air strikes against the Houthi’s in Yemen in particular. Lebanon, whose sectarian map is of extreme complexity, and where Iran backs Hezbollah as a major political and military actor, vowed supporting the decision only in case of unanimity.

As for the situation in Libya, its neighbor Egypt requested to support the internationally recognized Libyan government to gain control of the country currently torn between different heavily armed militias – including branches of Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Yet, this was met by opposition from Libya’s western neighbors, Algeria and Tunisia, who insisted on a political peace process that would include all parties. It was also opposed by Qatar, a main supporter of the Muslim brotherhood, whose political faction in Libya has set up an alternative government and whose militias are in war with the government. As expected, the debate about Syria was not any easier, even between close allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia whose positions vary drastically.

Details announced about the proposed joint force show that the Arab League’s member’s contribution to the forces would be on voluntary basis. The structure, funding and leadership of the forces are yet to be decided in a series of meetings between the Chiefs of Staff of Arab armies over the next few months.

But according to the initial plans declared, it will be created as a quick intervention forces composed of about 40,000 soldiers backed by fighter jets and ships. They are likely to be based in their home countries, but summoned on periodic basis for military drills and trainings. In any event, these details constitute minor issues in comparison to the questions raised about the force’s role, deployment and impact on the region’s future.

The joint Arab forces project will certainly face several challenges, starting with the decision making process and priority of intervention.

Two of the main countries supporting the establishment are Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are not on the same terms on all regional issues, if any. For instance, the two countries have different stances regarding the situation in Syria: Saudi Arabia is vocal about toppling the current regime, whereas Egypt is open to any political solution. Major strategic and technical issues are also facing these new forces, as displayed in the current coalition against the Houthi’s in Yemen, where air strikes of the Saudi-led 10-country coalition did not curb their advance towards Aden.

It is obvious that these forces will be used primarily to curb Iranian influence in the region, but questions remain about its role to counter terrorism and jihadist insurgency in Libya, Syria, Iraq and even Sinai, Egypt. ISIS, opposed by both the Sunni and Shiite camps, raises questions on the dilemmas to be faced by the Arab joint forces.

Even more questions are raised regarding the role of these forces in Arab-Arab military disputes, with the memory of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in mind, as well as in the Arab-Israeli conflict and their post-conflict role.

Despite the limitations and challenges, the creation of such regional force does carry real significance. Arab regional powers seem to be less dependent on the remediation of Western powers to solve the regions’ problems.

On the one hand, Egypt seems to be slowly recovering after the 2011 revolution and re-posing as the region’s leader but this time siding with other regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are adopting a new activist, and somewhat aggressive, foreign policy approach marked by more military action and less dependency on US foreign policy agenda in the Middle East.

That said, the GCC’s countries remain dependant on the US supply of arms, although the recent years have shown signs of diversification of arms providers.

In such a changing geopolitical environment, significant risks wave in the horizon. As Iran’s relationship with the West seems to improve following the latest nuclear deal and the potential future lift of sanctions, tension between the GCC countries and their Persian neighbor seem to take a more confrontational direction.

The Iranian attempt to impose its hegemony on various corners of the region are faced by an increasingly aggressive reaction from its smaller GCC neighbors directly threatened by the Iranian foreign policy agenda.

Although unlikely for the time being, an Arab-Persian war is no longer a farfetched scenario.

About Author

Ahmad Taleb

Ahmed is a Business Intelligence Analyst for a multinational financial advisory services company. He received his graduate education in Business & International Commerce in Egypt and France. He obtained a master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po Aix) in France.