Murder further hinders ‘Arab Nato’ plans: US sources
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump’s strategy to contain Iranian power in the Middle East by forging Arab allies into a USbacked security alliance was in trouble even before the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, three US sources say, the plan faces fresh complications.
Khashoggi’s murder on October 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has drawn international outrage against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Turkish officials and some US lawmakers have accused the kingdom’s de facto ruler of ordering the killing.
The Middle East Strategic Alliance (Mesa) aims to bind Sunni Muslim governments in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan in a USled security, political and economic pact to counter Shi’ite Iran.
But feuds among Arab allies, especially a Saudiled economic and political boycott of Qatar, have hampered the founding of the alliance since Riyadh proposed it last year.
A summit meeting in the United States where Trump and the Arab leaders would sign a preliminary accord on the alliance was expected in January. But the three US sources and a Gulf diplomat say the meeting now looks uncertain. It has already been postponed several times, they said.
Khashoggi’s murder raised ‘‘a whole bunch of problems’’ to be solved before the plan, informally referred to as the ‘‘Arab Nato’’, could move forward, one US source said.
One issue was how the Americans could have the Saudi crown prince, who goes by the initials MbS, attend the summit without causing widespread outrage.
‘‘It’s not palatable,’’ the source said.
A senior Trump Administration official denied on Wednesday that Khashoggi’s death complicated progress on the alliance, saying Mesa ‘‘is much larger than one country and one issue’’.
Saudi Arabia has denied MbS’ involvement in Khashoggi’s killing and said an investigation into responsibility was under way.
Robert Malley, a top Middle East adviser to former President Barack Obama who now heads the International Crisis Group, a conflictprevention organisation, said it would be difficult for
MbS to attend a January summit ‘‘given what happened and how raw the feelings are’’.
‘‘I’m not sure he would want to come to the United States right now,’’ Malley said.
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, the administration’s chief Mesa negotiator, said the initiative
‘‘is moving forward’’ but added the impact of Khashoggi’s death was unclear.
‘‘I don’t know yet how it will affect the process. Awaiting final investigation and decisions,’’ he told Reuters in a recent email. ‘‘I think there may be a wait until the investigation (maybe forensics if a body is found) is complete before a way forward is discussed.’’
The eight potential alliance members did not respond to requests for comment about their commitment to Mesa.
Even before the fallout from Khashoggi’s killing complicated matters, two classified White House documents seen by Reuters show the administration was grappling for ways to overcome regional feuds and push Mesa forward in order to contain Iran and limit Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
‘‘Our regional partners are increasingly competing and, in the case of the Qatar rift, entering into outright competition to the detriment of American interests and to the benefit of Iran, Russia and China,’’ National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in a letter late (northern) summer, before Khashoggi’s death.
‘‘To arrest these negative trends, we need to change our partners’ strategic calculus.’’
Three US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been a debate within the administration about whether Washington could persuade Arab allies to put aside their differences. A fourth official said the broad goals of Mesa were widely shared within the administration, but there were discussions over the best approach for reaching a deal.
A Defence Department spokeswoman referred questions
to the State Department. A State Department official said the administration continued to ‘‘engage with our partners on working toward’’ the alliance.
White House plan
The administration’s plan is aimed at furthering Trump’s ‘‘America First’’ strategy to reduce foreign military engagements and have allies shoulder more of the burden for their own security, while advancing US interests in the Middle East, according to one of the White House documents.
One document, drafted before Khashoggi’s death, said Trump had warned the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the sixnation Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt, that ‘‘the status quo is untenable and that the United States will not continue to invest in Middle East security’’ if they did not resolve their disputes.
Washington deploys aircraft, warships and more than 30,000 military personnel at bases in the GCC countries. Senior US military officials say they have no intention to change that posture.
Deal or no deal. . . US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in March.