The announcement by Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi on 30 March of plans to form a joint Arab military force to tackle extremist groups operating in the Middle East set an historical precedent at the end of the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

The move signifies a seismic shift in geopolitics in the Arab world, most notably Egypt’s re-emergence as a major power-player in pan-Arab relations. However, there are deeper ramifications from a global perspective, not least the growing reluctance of outside forces, especially the US and the UK, to put boots on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.

Painful lesson

Military intervention has fallen out of favour with many Western governments. This is partly due to the negative public reaction to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the vast cost that any military action invariably incurs. The US and the UK have suffered a painful lesson over the past 12 years, on both a fiscal and a reputational basis, which they and others do not want to repeat. 

Top defence importers, 2014
1 Saudi Arabia
2 India
3 China
4 UAE
5 Taiwan
6 Australia
7 South Korea
8 Indonesia
9 Turkey
10 Pakistan
Source: HIS

This leads some to the logical conclusion that a properly organised joint Arab military force would be able to enhance the region’s security using local troops, which in turn would lead to greater harmony among neighbouring countries.

It is also an indication that the region is starting to take responsibility for its own security and tackle head-on the rise of jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), as well as several Iran-backed Shia militia movements. 

Critics have warned that a pan-Arab military force runs the risk of becoming a Sunni-led regional superpower unless properly governed. Other concerns are centred on the fact that any rapid-response military capability could be used to crush dissent or even topple a government that is perceived to pose a security threat to member states.

The template for the successful formation of the force is likely to be based on the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni militaries behind the recent campaign of airstrikes against the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.

If the Yemen coalition signs up for the force, Saudi Arabia will be joined by the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Morocco. Other nations could then decide to also take part.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi told a press conference in Egypt in March that talks for a joint force had been planned for some months and that the focus would be firmly on fighting terrorism. This would be reflected in the joint force not being set up to fight a conventional war, but taking a “comprehensive approach” to confronting terrorist groups operating across the Arab world.

Al-Arabi also called for there to be no disputes over how often any joint force would be utilised and that any deployment of forces should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Using the recent operation in Yemen (dubbed Resolute Storm) as a model, it is clear that airstrikes would be the primary focus and that ground troops would only be used if there was no successful resolution.

Top defence exporters, 2014
1 US
2 Russia
3 France
4 UK
5 Germany
6 Italy
7 Israel
8 China
9 Spain
10 Canada
Source: HIS

Another unanswered question is whether the joint force would be deployed in an Arab state that had not requested assistance. The continued presence of Isis in Iraq and Syria is a case in point and it is unclear whether or not a new military coalition would be welcome in either country.

What is clear from the plans is that the formation of a joint Arab force that is predominately, if not completely, Sunni is a clear signal to Iran that any proxy wars being waged by Tehran on Arab soil will not be tolerated in the future.

The workability of a truly pan-Arab military alliance has also raised the issue of who will lead the initiative.

“It sounds great on paper, but Arab agreement on command and control is one of the key challenges facing this force,” says Bilal Saab, senior fellow for the Washington-based Brent Scowcroft Centre on International Security. “Who will lead operations? Riyadh or Cairo? The Arab Gulf states are better off creating a truly unified military force before expanding to other Arab countries.”

Iran return

Iran has a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard called the Al-Quds Force that is responsible for extraterritorial operations. This has included extensive training of militant groups within Arab countries in the past.

With the likely prospect of Tehran returning from the geopolitical cold after an agreement in principle to halt its nuclear programme, the formation of a joint Arab force may be viewed as an unnecessary diversion by some and as outright sabre-rattling by others.

Any type of military solution to the Sunni-Shia power struggle runs an extremely high risk of all-out war in the region. There is also the worry that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s hawkish approach to foreign affairs could culminate in Riyadh leading its Arab neighbours into a position where war could eventually be inevitable.

If used correctly, a pan-Arab military alliance could be a useful tool to ensure greater security for Arab citizens, but it is clear any military intervention is worthless without economic and political reforms aimed at solving a crisis in a peaceful manner.

Saudi Arabia is fastest-growing defence importer

With so many threats to its borders, Saudi Arabia has ramped up its defences to such an extent that it recorded the highest increase in military spending worldwide in 2014, according to the annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Riyadh increased spending by 17 per cent last year, taking the annual Saudi defence budget to $80.8bn.

According to US research company IHS, Saudi Arabia is also now the world’s largest market for international defence companies.

The kingdom replaced India as the world’s biggest importer of defence equipment in 2014, and is expected to consolidate this position even further in 2015.

Saudi Arabia has also replaced India as the largest export market for the US defence industry, and one in every seven dollars now invested in defence globally is being spent by Riyadh.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia and the UAE accounted for a total of $8.6bn of defence imports, which is more than the combined figure for Western Europe.

According to the Global Defence Trade Report by IHS, defence hardware spending in the kingdom is due to rise by 54 per cent in 2015 to $9.8bn, based on planned deliveries.

The Middle East has been identified as the key global market by IHS, which forecasts that the region could spend $110bn on defence over the next decade.

Despite lower oil prices, military spending in major Middle East markets is not expected to diminish, although Russian exports to Iran are likely to be badly affected.

Riyadh’s huge commitment to defence was demonstrated in early February, when the man who engineered the global success of the Middle East’s largest listed company was made chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Organisation for Military Industries.

Mohamed al-Mady, the former CEO of petrochemicals giant Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic), was appointed to the key role in the hope that he could apply his extensive commercial acumen to the kingdom’s vast defence budget.  

It is not yet clear whether the proposed joint Arab military force will incur more costs to member states or if savings will be made due to the budget for the quick reaction force being divided between several countries.