In June 2014, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) of Nato, which seeks to expand security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, will be 10 years old. During a meeting with Nato foreign ministers and the four ICI partners on April 2, Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen referred to the launch of the initiative in 2004 “as a clear signal that the security and stability of the Gulf region is of strategic interest to Nato, just as the security of the Euro-Atlantic area matters to the Gulf region”. With the discussion about the future of Gulf security having taken on new urgency, given Iran’s attempt to break out of its isolation and the GCC’s concerns over the future direction of US policy in the region, the role of Nato in terms of a future security arrangement in the Gulf should indeed be given a closer look.

On the surface, ICI has not much to show after 10 years. Of the six GCC countries, only four have actually decided to join the initiative — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Two key countries of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Oman, have so far stayed outside the initiative. ICI also remains a bilateral programme and has, in that sense, done little to foster defence cooperation and integration among the GCC states. Overall, ad hoc cooperation appears to be the best way to describe the ICI’s relationship with the GCC states. Given the rapidly changing security environment in the Gulf region and the need for the GCC states to ensure their continued security, the GCC states should look into ways in which the relationship within and outside ICI can be enhanced and further strengthened. Similarly, Nato needs to review its position to see under what conditions it can begin to take on a bigger Gulf security role.

There are genuine doubts within the Arab Gulf countries about the continued reliability of the US as the primary guarantor of the region’s security. Such concerns should not be seen within the context of simple criticism of US policy direction, but have to be taken within the framework of a realistic analysis that countries follow their own interests and those interests can change over time. Under the Obama administration, the direction US policy has taken is to avoid entanglement in Middle East conflicts, while at the same time containing those conflicts so that they do not develop into a direct threat to the US. A more interventionist US role would only come about if its core interests are impacted. Here, the Obama foreign policy team has restricted those core interests to fighting terrorism and preventing nuclear proliferation. With more than two years of the Obama administration still to go, the Arab Gulf states need to adjust to these new realities on the ground. These realities include the fact that a US defence drawdown in the Gulf region is inevitable.

This outlook stands in contrast to the fact that the US does remain the indispensable security guarantor for the GCC states. At this stage, and for the foreseeable future, there is simply no other alternative. China, Russia and India have also been put forward as possibilities, but they are politically not acceptable to the GCC states. Moreover, they lack either the capability or the willingness or both to take on a broader security role. Europe could be an alternative but the European Union (EU) is not a unified actor on the foreign policy and security front and its readiness to deploy military assets to protect the regimes of the Gulf is highly doubtful. While the Gulf region could benefit from the EU’s soft-power tools and its conflict management potential, the current realities in the Gulf suggest that those tools alone are insufficient to provide adequate protection and stability.

Solutions from within the region also do not seem to exist. For the GCC, Iran is not a trusted partner and it will take a long time to overcome the current mistrust and mutual hostilities. Turkey will not be seen as an honest broker. Meanwhile, the rest of the Middle East is grappling with its own transition and has thus removed itself from playing a security role in the near future. That also includes Iraq, which is witnessing a return to civil-war like conditions.

With few other alternatives at hand, an expanded relationship with Nato is the only plausible option that can be considered. In essence, Nato is the US plus Europe and therefore extends to the region a more flexible arrangement with a variety of options to choose from. In addition to its regional security role, Nato offers numerous benefits such as access to Nato standards and doctrine, practical cooperation in combating piracy, cyber security, protection of critical infrastructure and joint training opportunities in a whole array of areas. In all these aspects — and if pursued and applied multilaterally — an expanded Nato role will benefit GCC defence integration.

For that to be effective, Nato will have to shift its bilateral approach in favour of a more multilateral variant. Instead of only consultations taking place with individual ICI members, a strategic dialogue at the GCC level should be established similar to what the US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, referred to in Manama in December 2013 when he proposed an annual US-GCC Defence Ministerial meeting. If the GCC countries are hesitant about US intentions, the Nato option of such a dialogue should be acceptable. Within the framework of such strategic discussions, the broader role of Nato should be discussed. This will further pave the way for Saudi Arabia and Oman to rethink their positions and possibly join the ICI formally.

Nato should be interested because it will give the alliance a basis from which to maintain a watch on three key areas of concerns: Afghanistan, following the 2014 withdrawal of all Nato troops; the fight against international terrorism; and the continued anti-piracy campaign in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. That Nato clearly stated in its 2010 Strategic Concept adopted at the Lisbon summit its interest to “develop a deeper security partnership with Gulf partners” is a clear signal of its collective interest in the stability of the Gulf region.

Secretary-General Rasmussen’s reiteration of the strategic interest of Nato in the Gulf should be picked up by the GCC to broaden and enhance relations following ten years of ICI. The fragile and uncertain nature and direction of Gulf security matters demand that such an option is taken seriously.

Dr Abdulaziz Sager is chairman of the Gulf Research Centre.