NATO center in Kuwait, a good promise to keep

Surely, the opening of the NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) Regional Centre in Kuwait is a good, long-awaited news. First of all, it is the first such presence in the region. Secondly, it is a tangible achievement able to support and revitalize ICI, betting on convergent security interests through practical cooperation. But the partnership road is still ahead.

The NATO-ICI Regional Centre will focus on: strategic analysis, military-to-military cooperation and interoperability, civil emergency planning, training, public diplomacy and cultural awareness. The fight against international terrorism, weapons proliferation and cyber security are other fields of mutual concern, as states weakening and freedom of navigation in choke-points (as the Bab el-Mandeb).

On January 24, 2016, during the NAC-ICI Meeting held in Kuwait City to celebrate the opening of the Regional Centre, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talked about NATO-ICI as a “blossoming partnership”. Without any doubt, the cooperation between the Atlantic Alliance and the Gulf states has slowly advanced so far: as a blossom, it needs time, patience and a suitable context to grow.

A real upgrading in NATO-Gulf monarchies military partnership will be possible only when Saudi Arabia will join the initiative, or will accept a Saudi-tailored framework of cooperation, so paving the way for an effective NATO-GCC strategic dialogue. However, the opening of the Regional Centre marks a significant step in this path.

The time-frame is positive to develop a NATO-ICI teamwork. We have been living in a post-American Gulf, where the Americans are still present but aim to reduce their political involvement in the region. Therefore, Gulf states are more committed to regional security than it was in the past. This is a clear, long-term trend able to reshape traditional defense patterns. Moreover, such a development happens in times of demanding economic changes. With this purpose, the Arab Gulf region seeks for enhanced, bilateral security arrangements (as the defense partnership with the UK reaffirmed in December 2016) and closer defense cooperation (as with NATO), to better cope with the current volatile scenario.

The Gulf states look increasingly beyond their borders in order to project power and build regional stability: for instance, the United Arab Emirates have just established their first permanent military base abroad, at Assab (Eritrea), and will probably open an outpost in Somaliland.

On the other hand, NATO wants to promote burden sharing, engaging partners in cooperative security (Lisbon Strategic Concept, 2010). But the only way towards interoperability passes through enhanced local military capabilities: this is ICI’s main objective. Practical cooperation and shared expertise are precious tools to circumvent political differences and misunderstandings, so avoiding “high politics” deadlocks.

For the Gulf countries, the military capabilities issue is fundamental. In an age of multidimensional threats, Gulf states’ Armed Forces have been working to enhance technical know-how, adapting to changing external and internal threats. For them, the first challenge is find an effective balance between tradition and incremental professionalization; to quote an example, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have recently introduced compulsory military service. NATO can provide experience and best practices in order to support ongoing national defense reforms and GCC defense integration efforts: all Gulf partners have developed individual cooperation programs with NATO.

In such a framework, Saudi-led military operation in Yemen has already marked a watershed in the history of Gulf monarchies’ military projection: it involves Gulf’s soldiers out of the boundaries of the GCC, encompassing also a counter-terrorism dimension (the fight against Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula). Training and human resources are the priorities: as testified by the Yemeni campaign, Gulf states’ armies need not only to improve ground capabilities, but also to harmonize their land skills: the UAE appear more effective than Saudi Arabia with regard to this point. The Abu Dhabi-led federation has often operated alongside NATO peace support operations, as occurred in Afghanistan.

Kuwait, who asked to host the Regional Centre, was a natural choice in the region. An ICI member since 2004, Kuwait signed a Transit Agreement with NATO in 2016 and in the same year opened a diplomatic mission at NATO HQ in Brussels (as the other ICI countries), so upgrading its political status with the Atlantic Alliance. From a geopolitical point of view, Kuwait has always been a bridge of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, its geographical proximity with Iraq makes Kuwait particularly interested in regional security-building, even though bilateral ties, rather than a multilateral format, remain -at Gulf states’ eyes- the preferred choice to address defense issues.

NATO-ICI Regional Centre is the first tangible step in Arab-NATO relations after 2009, when the NATO Regional Cooperation Course (NRCC) at the NATO Defense College in Rome was launched (Riga Summit, 2006). But work has just begun: the Regional Centre must not remain a “bright packaging” without concrete contents. For this reason, political commitment, translated into proper resources and organized implementation, will be the key to turn intents into reality.

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo – President of Nato Defense College Foundation
Eleonora Ardemagni – Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean Analyst,  Nato Defense College Foundation