Strengthening NATO-Gulf cooperation
Intervention by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi
First, let me thank Dr. Al Ketbi and the Emirates Policy Center for their kind invitation. I’m honored to represent NATO at the first Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate. It couldn’t be more timely, given the multitude and complexity of the challenges facing our nations.
We had a NATO Summit in Wales just over a month ago. This time last year, it looked as though that Summit was going to be a fairly routine event, focusing on our engagement in Afghanistan. But when NATO leaders met in Wales, they had to grapple with the greatest challenges to our security since the end of the Cold War – not only Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but multiple threats on NATO’s Southern doorstep, the broader Middle East and Gulf regions.
The challenges NATO is facing in Europe and in the Middle East are very different, but there is a common thread. In both cases, we are confronted by forces that reject our values and seek to overturn the international rules-based order. ISIL’s violent ideology is pouring oil on the fire of extremism and sectarianism that is already burning across the Middle East and North Africa. But it also risks exporting terrorism much further afield, including to NATO and EU member states. And so it represents a fundamental threat to the security and stability of all our countries, and to the very fabric of our societies.
Dealing with this threat requires a broad, multinational effort covering a range of different measures. We need urgent military action to degrade and defeat ISIL, and to rebuild the capacity of Iraqi and other local security forces to provide the essential boots on the ground. We need to stop the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, and prevent them from wreaking havoc when they return home. We need to disrupt the financial support to ISIL and its criminal activities. We need increased humanitarian relief for the millions of refugees and other victims of ISIL’s brutality. And we need a sustained effort across the region to delegitimize ISIL, its twisted interpretation of Islam, and its glorification of terrorist violence.
These are complementary objectives which go beyond the capability of any single nation or organization. My country, the United States, has of course taken the initiative to rally an international coalition to take action in all these different areas. And it’s especially important that regional countries, among them the UAE, are part of that effort, including the air campaign. It is vital that the people of the region see that this is not about the “West” imposing its will on the Islamic world, but a joint effort with legitimate authorities – in Iraq and the region – to meet a common threat.
NATO is playing its part too. We all stand with our Ally Turkey, which is literally on the front line. And while the air campaign is not a NATO operation, NATO Allies provide the bulk of the military assets that are now being deployed to degrade ISIL.
At our Summit last month, Allies also underlined our readiness to help Iraq, a NATO partner country, to strengthen its defense capacity. NATO experts have just visited CENTCOM headquarters in Florida to see where NATO might complement coalition efforts. We are now awaiting a specific Iraqi government request to determine how we might best focus our support.
At Wales, we also took a number of other decisions in response to the new risks and threats in our Eastern and Southern neighborhoods – in particular to help our partners in these regions to face these risks and threats.
One new initiative is aimed at strengthening the interoperability between NATO forces and those of interested partners. At Wales, our Defense Ministers met with 24 especially interoperable partners, including the UAE, which is a founding member of our new Interoperability Platform. We are keen to follow up be expanding our practical cooperation on interoperability issues, and we hope others in the region will seek to participate as well.
The Wales Summit also launched a new initiative to help partners to strengthen their ability to address security challenges in their own region. This initiative builds upon NATO's extensive expertise in defense capacity building, including in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan. We’re initially working with Jordan, Georgia and Moldova, but we’re ready to cooperate with other interested partners and organizations as well.
NATO has a solid record of cooperation with countries here in the Gulf. The launch of our Istanbul Cooperation Initiative ten years ago was a strong demonstration that the security and stability of this region is of strategic interest to NATO – just as the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area matter to the Gulf region.
The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain have all made good use of the opportunities for dialogue and practical cooperation under the ICI. Saudi Arabia and Oman haven’t formally joined (although the door is open!), but we’re glad they have gradually stepped up their relations with NATO as well.
We’re also very pleased that our Gulf partners have proved increasingly effective security providers, including well beyond this region. They made valuable contributions to our mission in Afghanistan. They took an active part in our operation to protect the people of Libya three years ago. And they are again playing a major role in the international coalition to counter ISIL.
I believe it’s in our mutual interest to build on this progress and deepen our partnership, so we will be even better able to respond to future security challenges. I see particular potential in three areas:
First, NATO and its regional partners should intensify our political dialogue and practical cooperation. Bilateral contacts (28+1) will remain important. They are an opportunity for each of our individual Gulf partners to share their concerns, for NATO to tailor its assistance to those concerns, and for us all to develop a shared outlook on the key security challenges of this region.
I also see scope for closer multilateral relations between NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council. We have already held exploratory talks. I believe we would all benefit from a more regular political dialogue, as well as a greater exchange of information between our organizations. That can run from strategy and doctrine to very practical issues about military planning.
NATO has considerable expertise with different forms of structured cooperation among two or more of its members, such as the Lancaster House Treaty between France and Britain, or the Visegrad-4. I believe that experience could be of particular interest to the GCC as it develops its own, regional security role, as well as integrated defense structures.
Second, we should work together to strengthen maritime security. Many European NATO Allies are highly dependent on energy from the Gulf region. And Gulf countries depend on the secure transport of their energy exports. So we have a clear, common interest in the safety of shipping lanes in this part of the world.
In recent years, Gulf countries have worked with NATO and other navies on several occasions. I would encourage them to step up that engagement by joining NATO’s counter-piracy operation in the western Indian Ocean – operation “Ocean Shield”. This would showcase their growing contribution to stability in the region and beyond. And it would help address a common threat to the security and well-being of all our nations.
Finally, we should further strengthen interoperability between our forces. During our Libya operation three years ago, this country and Qatar were able to contribute impressive air assets quickly and effectively. And in recent weeks, several of our Gulf partners have again demonstrated that ability to plug into a complex, multinational military operation very smoothly.
This didn’t happen by chance. It was the result of years of military-to-military contacts with NATO Allies, including training and exercises. We should continue to strengthen that interoperability between our soldiers, sailors and airmen, because it will be critical to our ability to meet common security challenges together in the future.
To conclude, let me stress that, while many NATO members are deeply engaged in the region and in the fight against ISIL, NATO has no ambition to be the principal provider of security, either here in the Gulf or in the wider Middle East. But we do have a strategic interest in that security. And we have unique expertise and valuable assets that can help this country and our other Gulf partners here to bolster that security.
While we may always hope for the best, the rise of ISIL shows that we must all be prepared for the worst. We will always look for a diplomatic solution to any crisis. But we must all be able to back up diplomacy with effective military action. And we must be able to do so with the broadest possible regional and international support. That is what working with NATO can help our partners here in the Gulf to achieve.