It Is In Interest Of NATO And Arab States To Deepen Relations – Analysis


By Luke Coffey

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently made an important visit to Saudi Arabia. This was the first such visit by a sitting secretary-general and will hopefully serve as the starting point for closer NATO-Arab relations in the coming years.

During his stop, Stoltenberg met with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and GCC Secretary-General Jassem Mohamed Albudaiwi, in addition to other senior officials. He also delivered remarks at the Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College.

The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which started in 2004, currently forms the basis of NATO’s relations with Arab states. Although all six members of the GCC were invited to join, only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have done so. In 2017, Kuwait became home to the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center. The focus of the regional center is to increase the shared understanding of security challenges between NATO and its partners in the region through high-level meetings and educational courses. Saudi Arabia, while not a member of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, has shown interest in improving relations with NATO in recent years. This makes Stoltenberg’s choice of Saudi Arabia for his recent visit to the Middle East particularly significant.

However, little has been done to advance relations between NATO and the countries of the Middle East in recent years. After much enthusiasm in the early days of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, no new member has joined the grouping in years. The Middle East in general, and the Gulf region specifically, is often an afterthought in NATO’s official strategy documents. This is shortsighted. Although NATO’s remit is the transatlantic region, there is plenty of security overlap with the Middle East that requires attention.

Last October, Stoltenberg announced the formation of a team of experts to advise him on the best ways to improve relations between NATO and the countries of the Middle East. They are expected to report their findings and recommendations at the NATO foreign ministerial meeting this coming April. As they undergo their review, there are several things that the group should be considering to advance relations.

Firstly, NATO must focus on practical areas of cooperation with the countries in the Middle East. This includes cooperation on regional maritime security — especially as shipping in the Red Sea becomes more problematic. Also, there should be increased cooperation on improving air defense capabilities. With the proliferation of ballistic missiles across the Middle East and the increasing numbers of drones being used, the topic of air defense should be at the top of the agenda for NATO cooperation in the region. Finally, there is an ongoing and shared concern about counterterrorism. This should be another area of cooperation for NATO and the countries of the Middle East.

Secondly, NATO should advocate expanding the membership of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The leaders of NATO and Saudi Arabia should build on the success of the secretary-general’s recent visit to Riyadh to formalize a closer relationship between the two sides. Since Saudi Arabia is a leader in the region, NATO cannot have effective engagement in the Middle East without close relations with Riyadh. As the secretary-general told an audience at the Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College: “I believe there is huge potential for NATO to do more with Saudi Arabia because we have mutual challenges.”

Thirdly, NATO should use 2024 as an opportunity to highlight the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative by marking the 20th anniversary of its founding. The alliance can do so by holding a special meeting of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative at the heads of state and government level. This is rarely done as they normally meet only at the foreign ministerial level.

Fourthly, as NATO marks this anniversary, it would be a good idea for the alliance to issue a strategy document outlining what NATO’s goals and aspirations are in the region. When NATO published its most recent Strategic Concept, the document meant to prepare the alliance for future threats and challenges, there was barely any attention given to the Middle East. In fact, in a document that is just over 4,200 words, only one paragraph of about 80 words was devoted to the region. Furthermore, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative was not mentioned at all.

Finally, NATO should appoint a special representative for the Middle East and North Africa region, where personal relationships are paramount. It should appoint a highly respected diplomat with knowledge of the region to be an enduring point of contact between the alliance and the region.

NATO has its hands full right now. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will soon enter its second year. The defense and security of eastern Europe is a constant concern for the alliance. The uncertainty of the upcoming presidential election in the US is making many European members of NATO anxious. The alliance is also undergoing a debate about what role, if any, it should have in Asia with the rise of China.

Even so, NATO cannot ignore the Middle East. Recent history has shown that when it comes to geopolitics and security challenges, the transatlantic region and the Middle East are closely linked. There has also been a good track record of security cooperation to build on. For example, a number of Arab states such as the UAE, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain have served as part of NATO-led missions in Libya, the Balkans and Afghanistan over the years.

The first 20 years of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative have delivered only modest results. It would be in the interest of NATO and Arab states to deepen relations over the next 20 years.

 Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *