In their quest to ensure their own security and the stability of the Gulf, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are finding a growing number of partners willing to invest political capital and resources in cultivating good relations. This is unsurprising given the vital role the Gulf plays in the global economy thanks to its energy resources and the booming Gulf economies.
One of these partners is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), possibly the most powerful political-military alliance ever formed. The Cold War era security body, designed to counter Communist expansion and defend Western democracies, has been looking for reasons to exist ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. At first, enlargement to include the former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe and the necessity to stabilise the war-torn Balkans captured most of Nato’s attention and resources.
But global priorities suddenly shifted on September 11, 2001. The Middle East, with its numerous conflicts, political challenges and economic problems, became the main focus of the international community and of Nato’s leading members. The feeling of being under-used and peripheral to the world’s greatest challenges spurred new thinking in Brussels, Washington and European capitals. No longer should Nato be confined to the European theatre, the reasoning went; in a world of interconnected and complex transnational challenges, security has to endorse a broader meaning.
Seeking a greater sense of purpose in a fast-changing world, Nato identified the Middle East and more precisely the Gulf as a region of interest. So in July 2004, it launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), an ambitious programme to offer technical security cooperation to Gulf countries interested in joining at no political cost or preconditions for them.
What Nato offers is military and security cooperation to improve inter-operability and professionalism. Its menu of proposed activities includes defence reform and cooperation across a range of activities: maritime, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, border security, and civil emergency planning, all of which are badly needed in a region that has witnessed major wars and internal unrest in recent decades.
This is why four small Gulf states (the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain) have formally joined the ICI. Conspicuously absent, however, is the Arabian Peninsula’s political and military giant, Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is arguably uninterested in entering yet another bilateral relationship that comes with no immediate benefit. The small Gulf states have a different rationale: military contacts and high-level strategic dialogues that assure them of the world’s interest in their stability.
Nato has put much effort in explaining the rationale behind the ICI to make sure its intentions are not misunderstood. Anxious not to be seen as a facade for the US but to be welcomed as a fully-fledged partner with its own identity and priorities, it has invested political capital and time to cultivate relations with governments and, interestingly, non-government actors.
Nato is also insistent that its ambitions in the region do not extend to providing security guarantees or concluding formal defence agreements with its Gulf partners. Several major Nato members (mainly the US, the UK and France, which is in the process of opening a base in Abu Dhabi) already have long standing defence agreements with Gulf countries. Nato has little more to offer and given its complex decision- making process, it is doubtful that momentum could be created for greater involvement in the region.
For their part, the Gulf states see building ties with Nato as a way to diversify their security and political relationships. They seek to internationalise Gulf security as a way to contain Iranian ambitions and focus on their internal development.
Another value of Nato’s involvement is that it brings together a mature alliance and a set of countries trying to build a collective security architecture and a common understanding of their security environment. As such, the Nato model is not applicable to the Middle East, where states are still in the process of developing their nationhood, politically and economically. But the virtues of information sharing, common threat assessments and shared capabilities can help the GCC countries think about their own security needs.
Another benefit is the transfer of skills between first-class armed forces and those of the Gulf, which rely on foreign training and assistance to build up their capabilities. The Gulf is vulnerable to conventional and non-conventional threats to which responses are often very similar in term of protecting civilians, critical infrastructure and government capabilities.
Finally, security policy in the Middle East has long been the prerogative of the state, but the arrival of new bodies such as Nato and the new nature of security challenges are forcing states to rethink their stance on security matters and reach out to academics and analysts to help them think through these issues. A more holistic understanding of security is emerging to the benefit of everyone.
That said, there are several obstacles to making the ICI a successful enterprise. Foremost is the lack of cultural and strategic understanding between the players. This gap can arguably be shrunk through dialogue, but it will take time and sustained engagement on both sides.
Another potential obstacle is the decreasing attractiveness of Nato as a security partner given its current problems. Once fearful of strategic irrelevance, Nato is now arguably overstretched, actively if unhappily engaged on the Afghan battlefield and now embattled in a political struggle with a resurgent Russia. These challenges could reduce the level of attention Nato can dedicate to the Gulf and even negatively affect Gulf security should Russia object to its presence here.