Benefits of strategic Nato-GCC relations Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/Gulf News

The Nato Warsaw Communique released during the July 2016 summit meeting of Nato member states called for the “establishment of regular working-level ties between the secretariats of Nato and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)” and “the launch of practical cooperation with the GCC as well as its member states.” The summit document also reflected on the security concerns that Nato and the GCC share and tasked Nato Ambassadors to report back at the December 2016 meeting of Nato Foreign Ministers on the progress in Nato-GCC ties. With more than a decade having passed since the 2004 Istanbul Nato summit that formalised cooperation with the GCC states in the form of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), such a review is indeed timely and necessary.

With the launch of ICI in 2004, Nato acknowledged the strategic importance of the Gulf region and began offering access to its programmes and structure to interested GCC member states. Up to date, four GCC states have joined the initiative — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE — while Saudi Arabia and Oman have expressed a degree of interest but have not formally joined.

Given the continued volatility of Gulf security arrangements more than a decade after ICI was launched, there are numerous reasons why the timing for expanding existing Nato-GCC ties could be right. These range from the general to the specific areas in which a closer relationship between the two sides would prove beneficial.

Nato and GCC countries certainly share numerous security interests ranging from ensuring free navigation of the seas, to combating terrorism and extremism, to preventing nuclear proliferation, and preventing state failure through the maintenance of capable security institutions. On many of these fronts, Nato and the GCC are already cooperating in an operational manner. All Nato and GCC member states, for example, are part of the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

In 2011, Nato worked with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Operation Unified Protector in Libya. Besides, the UAE has been a part of the Nato missions in Bosnia and Afghanistan for more than a decade. On the political front, Nato has called for an immediate and genuine political transition in Syria as have the GCC states. On the two key issues facing the Middle East at present — terrorism and the future of Syria — Nato and the GCC are on the same side.

There has also been progress on the multilateral front. At the 35th GCC summit meeting held in December 2014 in Doha, the leaders of the member states underlined their commitment to accelerating defense integration. That such declarations have not remained on paper was underscored by the coalition forces of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar joining together in the campaign to restore the legitimate government of Yemen following Al Houthi’s takeover of Sana’a. In addition, the proposal for a possible joint Arab military force has also been put back on the agenda. As the discussion on this issue continues and evolves, the experience of Nato will be critical in determining its success.

Diplomatic missions

Even on the ICI initiative, there has been progress. The four current GCC members of the ICI — Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE — have now elevated their political status with Nato by opening diplomatic missions at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. This has increased the level of the continuous strategic dialogue taking place. Recent concrete agreements include the Nato-Kuwait Transit Agreement signed in February 2016. And while Saudi Arabia and Oman have, up to this point, not formally joined ICI, they have not completely ruled out participation either and have kept the door open for future membership.

Nato should further be seen as a future element in the provision of security for the Gulf region as a whole, in particular as the United States adjusts its defence posture and lessens its military footprint overseas. While it would be inaccurate to state that an American defence withdrawal from the Gulf region is inevitable, there is no doubt that as the GCC defines its own regional security role, the multilateral element in security cooperation will take on a greater degree of relevance.

On issues such as structured forms of cooperation and the types of cooperation within a regional security framework, Nato brings a wealth of experience to the table. As Turkey expands its security role in the Middle East, it will also be beneficial to see how, as a member of Nato, it can be brought into the broader discussion of Gulf security.

Important signal to Iran

Moreover, a closer Nato-GCC relationship will be an important signal to Iran that the security of the region remains of paramount interest to the west and that any rapprochement with Iran, even economically, will be contingent on Tehran ultimately becoming a responsible contributor to the Gulf security community.

Nato can thus contribute to the functional debate on Gulf security in three critical areas: improving regional collective defence mechanisms, strengthening the crisis management capabilities of the GCC states, and outlining approaches to future cooperative security methods to be considered. This is in addition to the other areas of practical cooperation such as counter-terrorism and border, maritime and cyber security, where the benefits are clearer and more concrete.

The next step should be to enhance the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with a multilateral approach that elevates Nato-GCC ties. With regional security at stake, this is an opportune time to seriously consider such a move.

Christian Koch is the director of the Gulf Research Centre Foundation