The strategic significance of the new NATO-ICI regional center in Kuwait

On the 24th of January 2017, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg inaugurated NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Centre in the Emirate of Kuwait. On his Twitter account, the Secretary-General described this entity as “a new home for the Alliance in the Gulf” whose “potential is enormous”.

This opening constitutes undoubtedly an unprecedented step in the NATO-Gulf partnership, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). Founded in 2004, this initiative gathers NATO with four of the Gulf States: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Qatar. In the final Summit Declaration that announced the birth of the ICI, the Heads of State asserted that this partnership was “offered by NATO to interested countries in the region, starting with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to foster mutually beneficial bilateral relationships and thus enhance security and stability”, by focusing “on practical cooperation where NATO can add value has experienced”1. The ICI was to become the framework through which the Atlantic Alliance would engage with Arab monarchies in the Peninsula. Moreover it was expected by many to pave the way for a structured dialogue between NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council as its natural regional counterpart.

However the development of the partnership was not an easy endeavor. Saudi Arabia and Oman refrained from formally joining the ICI. They both agreed to participate in some NATO activities but adopted a wait-and-see approach regarding membership to the ICI. Oman was cautious not to be involved in what could be perceived as a NATO-GCC alliance against Iran, which would have put the Sultanate at odds with Tehran as both countries maintain political relations. In the case of Riyadh, explanations varied but it was generally understood that Saudi Arabia, being the regional hegemon, did not want to be put on a par with the small Gulf kingdoms. Eventually, the absence of both countries eroded the regional aspiration of the ICI.

Another shortcoming related to the traditional inclination towards bilateralism in the Peninsula. The four countries that joined the ICI expressed their preference for a bilateral framework, rather than a multilateral one (like the Mediterranean Dialogue). The ICI partners approached NATO’s initiative the same way they approached their multiple national security arrangements and guarantees with western powers. In both cases, the GCC countries sought close bilateral relations to pursue their own distinctive diplomatic goals. It sometimes hindered coordination among all the parties involved.

Against that backdrop, the opening of the NATO Regional Centre in Kuwait provides a new momentum that could reinvigorate the partnership. First, its physical location in the region indicates the reciprocal nature of the exchange. Until today, Gulf countries were sending numerous officers and diplomats to various partnership activities organized by NATO organizations but on the other side – apart from occasional attendance by NATO representatives to local events – the Alliance barely came to the Gulf. Moving the partnership to the region signals NATO resolve to better comprehend the local perception of security challenges and to anchor the relation on equal footing. It is worth noting that the inauguration of the centre occurred alongside a meeting of the North Atlantic Council that flew to Kuwait for that purpose. In that perspective, the description of the facility by Stoltenberg as a “new home” amplifies this novel approach.

The second reason why the centre could pave a way for a reenergized NATO-ICI dialogue is its regional scope. Kuwait definitely played a leading role in that enterprise. The country had been the first to join the ICI and later on, to establish an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme with NATO. Interestingly, the NATO-ICI Regional Centre was an idea promoted for several years by Kuwait’s National Security Bureau to the Headquarters of the Alliance in Brussels, not the other way around. But most importantly, the facility was envisioned as a gateway to the whole Peninsula, not solely to Kuwait. Its purpose is not only to strengthen the ties between NATO and Kuwait – which are already very strong in other domains of cooperation – but to create, again in the words of Jens Stoltenberg, “a vital hub for our practical cooperation”2.

The third and final reason the centre could improve the partnership is the range of its activities. As announced by NATO and Kuwait authorities, the new entity will provide a space for courses and conferences to cover issues of common interests (cyberdefense, counterterrorism, maritime security, military interoperability among others). Its mandate is therefore circumscribed to the fields of common education, training and analysis. It puts aside the perennial discussions on collective security guarantees that traditionally blocked the partnership and builds the centre as a platform, a policy-convening entity rather than a policy-making one.

Now, what should be done to sustain this momentum? Both the format and the content of activities matter. The stakeholders in the Gulf and in the West need to define a realistic agenda that serve the interests of both NATO and its ICI partners. First, the centre could act as a clearing house between all relevant institutions (Allied Command Transformation, NATO Headquarters, Joint Forces Command in Naples and their policy and military counterparts in the Gulf). It would help identifying, at the working level, the specific themes that could and should be on the agenda. In terms of resources for its activities, the centre could adopt a pragmatic approach. As a regional hub, it could rely on the expertise of partner institutions. On the NATO side, Joint Forces Command in Naples already committed to send mobile training teams. In the Gulf, the centre could consult and cooperate with the myriad of think tanks, and war colleges that emerged over the last years that do have in-house expertise able to deliver education and analysis. Such approach would enable the NATO-ICI Regional Centre to grow as a unique forum in the region to discuss security challenges at the multilateral level.
In terms of content, the centre should design courses of mutual benefit. It should not be another place where NATO officials come and lecture partners on the history and the future of the Alliance. There are programmes at the NATO Defense College and the NATO School that already fulfill this need. As the centre brings the Alliance to the region, its activities should systematically cross the perspectives. For instance, a conference on maritime security could be addressed by comparing the European and Gulf experiences in that domain. Likewise, the topic of allied interventions could be covered through roundtables where NATO and Gulf officers share their distinct experiences and lessons learned from Kosovo to Yemen. Such an approach would nurture the spirit of cooperation and distinguish the centre from other pre-existing organizations.

All in all, the inauguration of the NATO-ICI Regional Centre is a significant step in the development of a partnership that seemed for a long time to be on pause. It is now crucial that the stakeholders seize the momentum to turn it into an operational platform for the ICI.

  1. Istanbul Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council, Press Release (2004) 096, 28 June 2004, paragr. 37.
  2.  Joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, 24 january 2017. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_140313.htm

Jean-Loup Samaan – Associate professor in strategic studies with the Near East South Asia Center based in Abu Dhabi and a former deputy director of the Middle East Faculty of the NATO Defense College.