A military conference in Bahrain has affirmed Washington’s push to create a new security and political alliance with Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, to combat Iranian expansion in the region.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said Washington is in discussions to form an inclusive Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) during the two-day meeting.
“The United States is committed to working by, with, and through allies and partners across the region to make this concept a reality and reinforce deterrence of hostile actions,” Mr Mattis said during his address.
Washington is pushing for a deeper cooperation between the Arab states on missile defence, military training, counter terrorism and strengthening regional and economic and diplomatic relations.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir and his Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa told the forum that talks were held about a framework for MESA that included Qatari officials and that the proposed alliance would not be affected by the ongoing boycott of the tiny Gulf state.
MESA “is an alliance for security and prosperity for the region and will be open to those who accept its principles,” Sheikh Khalid said, adding that the alliance would also cooperate on economic issues.
Washington reiterated support for its regional partners to defend themselves against Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on their territories and at the same time called for an urgent end to the fighting in Yemen.
“We stand against Iran's unsafe even reckless behaviour in the maritime domain like the July attacks on international shipping by Iranian-supplied Houthis in the Bab Al Mandeb,” Mr Mattis said.
Iran’s behaviour disrupts maritime security and global trade, he said, particularly online. “We stand against Iran's conducting destructive and costly cyber-attacks against sovereign nations and corporations.”
These developments indicate a policy shift in focus towards Iran’s “malign behaviour” in the region, said Kari Schaki, deputy director at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
“Striking that on the list outlined by Secretary James Mattis of US concerns about Iran, its nuclear programme and sanctions was last,” Ms Schaki said.
US President Donald Trump, who in May withdraw the United States from a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran, has strongly backed Saudi Arabia in its efforts to counter Iran's influence.
The next wave of US sanctions against Iran are due to come into effect on November 4.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers also touched on Middle East peace initiatives, with Sheikh Khalid lauding efforts by Oman, which hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday in the first visit in more than 20 years.
Oman’s foreign minister, Yousuf bin Alawi, told the forum that Muscat was offering ideas to help Israel and the Palestinians to come together but was not acting as mediator.
More from the Manama Dialogue:
When asked about Saudi’s regional view of Israel, Mr Al Jubeir said that the Kingdom has no relations with Tel Aviv.
“We think that the key to normalising relations with Israel will have to be the peace process and this is enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative… that calls for Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory and allow a Palestinian state within 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital in exchange for peace and normalisation,” he said, adding that this remains the Kingdom’s position.
Jordan’s foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the Israel-Palestine peace process was of vital importance for his country but he warned that the current deadlock was a “fertile ground” for extremism and radicals.
“The situation is extremely dangerous now… if the deadlock continues it [will] create an environment of despair which could explode at any moment and which provides fertile ground for every spoiler and every radical to exploit with a view of propagating an agenda of hate and fear.”
Captain Bill Urban, spokesman for US Central Command told The National: "US Central Command strongly supports GCC and regional nations working together for the security and stability of the region. All nations prosper when they find common purpose and common ground on the pursuit of peace."