The US has put its eggs in the Saudi basket, and Israel is following suit — an approach that may soon backfire
MAY 23, 2019. TOI
Egypt’s withdrawal from the formation of an “Arab NATO” against Iran is a warning that both Israel and the US need to urgently rethink their strategy regarding the Middle East. Putting all its Arab World eggs in the Saudi basket could prove to be one of the more unsound decisions in the annals of American diplomatic history, and one that could profoundly affect Israel if it backfires.
Several weeks ago, Cairo discreetly notified Riyadh and Washington that it was suspending its participation in MESA (Middle East Strategic Alliance), the US-Saudi initiative to establish an Arab NATO to counter Iran. This means the idea of an Arab NATO has died in the very early stages of its gestation, since Egypt has by far the biggest, and one of the best equipped, armies in the Arab world – the only once with any capability of being an effective counterweight to Iran.
Although neither Cairo nor Riyadh nor Washington has officially confirmed the reports about this that have appeared in the Egyptian and western media, they provide an insight into current Egyptian thinking. The reports and commentaries in the Egyptian press are particularly illuminating, as they would never have seen the light of day without approval at the highest levels.
One is his lack of confidence in both Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) and President Trump. Various reports quote Egyptian sources as having doubts about Trump’s chances of being reelected. Concerns are being voiced that a new Democratic administration would scrap the project and return to the Obama era’s policy of appeasing Iran. Egypt is also uneasy about MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, whom Sisi and his advisors seem to regard as a loose cannon. They are also put off by Trump’s unpredictability, a trait most Arab leaders abhor. Sisi and the Egyptian defense establishment regard both men as prone to unsound, even reckless decisions. Sisi mistrusts Trump, who talks like an adventurist interventionist but acts like an isolationist. The bottom line is that Sisi and the senior Egyptian leadership fear that remaining in MESA is more risk than reward for Egypt.
Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips on its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either US forces or Israeli ones. Given the constraints any Arab government — even one as autocratic as Saudi Arabia — faces regarding overt cooperation with Israel so long as there is not even a hint of some kind of deal with the Palestinians, the chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF in advance of such a deal.
Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard. It may be sound domestic politics but could prove to be a very risky strategy, especially if the White House has a new Democratic resident as of January 2021.