CAIRO – Ground, air and naval units from five Arab nations are arriving in Egypt to join their Egyptian counterparts for war games, according to the Egyptian military, in the first sign that a military alliance proposed by Washington for its Middle East partners may be gaining traction.
A military statement late Wednesday said forces from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan will take part in the Nov. 3-16 exercises codenamed "Arab Shield" and to be held in western Egypt. Lebanon and Morocco are taking part as observers.
The announcement came a little more than a month after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in New York with the foreign ministers from the six nations participating in this month's war games plus those from Oman and Qatar to advance the idea of creating a Sunni alliance uniting America's Middle East partners against Shiite and non-Arab Iran.
However, the Egyptian military statement made no link between the war games and the proposed alliance, which Egypt may be approaching with caution given its sectarian undertones.
Egypt, however, has become heavily dependent on financial assistance and investments from Gulf heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and that might in turn influence its decision on whether to join the proposed alliance.
A prominent Egyptian analyst on Thursday warned against such an alliance, framing its creation as part of an ongoing process to replace Israel with Iran as the Arabs' chief enemy and emphasizing that differences between the Arabs and Iran can be politically settled.
"Israel is not a friend and this is a fact despite all attempts to ignore it," wrote Abdullah el-Sinnawy in the independent al-Shorouk newspaper. "The most dangerous thing here is to create an Arab NATO that includes countries bound by diplomatic relations with Israel like Egypt and Jordan and Gulf region nations like Saudi Arabia."
The U.S. proposed alliance, dubbed "Arab NATO," follows the derailment three years ago of efforts to create a joint Arab force agreed on at a 2015 Arab summit held in Egypt. That force was supposed to be led by an Egyptian and headquartered in Saudi Arabia. But a meeting of military chiefs of staff that was to iron out details of the force was cancelled in the last minute and another one was never scheduled.
Saudi Arabia then unilaterally announced the creation of an Islamic alliance that grouped its Gulf Arab allies along with Muslim majority countries in Africa and Asia. That also came to nothing.
Egypt is a member of a Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that has been fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen since 2015, but its role in the conflict is known to be limited to reconnaissance and the deployment of warships off Yemen's Red Sea coastline to secure shipping lanes.