Exclusive: Khashoggi Murder further Complicates 'Arab NATO' Plan - U.S. Sources
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s strategy to contain Iranian power in the Middle East by forging Arab allies into a U.S.-backed security alliance was in trouble even before the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now, three U.S. sources said, the plan faces fresh complications.
Khashoggi’s murder on Oct. 2 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has drawn international outrage against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with Turkish officials and some U.S. lawmakers accusing 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 U.S.-led security, political and economic pact to counter Shi’ite Iran.
But feuds among Arab allies, especially a Saudi-led 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 U.S. sources and a Gulf diplomat said the meeting now looks uncertain. It has already been postponed several times, they added.
Khashoggi’s murder raised “a whole bunch of problems” to be solved before the plan – informally referred to as the “Arab NATO” – can move forward, one U.S. source said. One issue is 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 Tuesday that Khashoggi’s death complicated progress on the alliance, saying that 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 underway.
Robert Malley, a top Middle East adviser to former President Barack Obama who now heads the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, 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 that the impact of Khashoggi’s death was unclear.
“I don’t know yet how it will affect the process. Awaiting final investigation and decisions,” Zinni 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.