NATO took a decisive step in building closer relations with Gulf Cooperation Council countries with the launch in 2004 of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), which has helped to foster cooperation and deepen common understanding.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, for the first time in NATO’s history, the Allies unanimously agreed to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on one Ally is an attack against all Allies. The Alliance deployed seven NATO AWACS radar aircraft to help patrol the skies over the United States and launched a maritime security operation in the Mediterranean. At the same time, several nations took on Al Qaeda by launching Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which came to complement the Alliance’s International Security Assistance Force and later Resolute Support Mission.

This also marked a step change in NATO’s relations with Gulf countries. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were intrinsically involved in these efforts. Bahrain deployed members from its special security force to Afghanistan. Kuwait provided basing and over-flight permissions for all forces in the operation. Qatar offered Allies use of its Al Udeid Airbase. The United Arab Emirates provided specialised troops and Al Minhad Air Base as a support hub. The tangible, swift and substantial support from these countries enabled a concerted effort to strengthen stability.

Qatar has offered NATO Allies use of its Al Udeid Airbase. Pictured: a US B-52 Stratofortress Bomber © YouTube

Formalising partnerships

NATO’s summit meeting in Istanbul in June 2004 ushered in a new era in engagement with the Middle East. The Allies had long understood the value of working with the nations of the Arabian Peninsula and that our security is inherently linked. At the Istanbul Summit, Allied leaders formally invited Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to form partnerships with NATO in the framework of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

“This initiative is 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,” Allied leaders said in their communiqué. They specified that alongside the ten-year-old Mediterranean Dialogue (NATO’s partnership framework with seven countries on and around the southern-rim of the Mediterranean), the ICI “will be developed in a spirit of joint ownership with the countries involved. Continued consultation and active engagement will be essential to their success.”

From that day forward, the relationship between NATO and these countries was no longer simply practical, but strategic. It was no longer purely about operational cooperation, but also a deepening political dialogue and public diplomacy outreach effort to enhance mutual understanding. Four of the six GCC countries became formal members – Kuwait in 2004, and Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE in 2005. Oman and Saudi Arabia refrained from joining, retaining their invitee status and cooperating with NATO on a case-by-case basis.

These partnership accords granted each of the ICI countries access to NATO’s Partnership Cooperation Menu – a broad range of education, training and consultation opportunities offered by NATO to its network of partner countries. The ICI countries have since also opened diplomatic missions to NATO in Brussels and accredited partner military representatives to NATO’s Allied Command Operations (also known as Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe or SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium.

The ICI took a proactive approach to outreach, inviting NATO ambassadors to conferences in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. A multilateral dimension emerged, as these ambassadors from all NATO nations and ICI countries came together to discuss matters of common concern.

Enter the Centre

Even before Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg could call it “NATO’s new home in the Gulf,” Allies recognised the offer by Kuwait to host a “NATO-ICI Regional Centre” as a proposal with enormous potential. At NATO’s summit meeting in Chicago in May 2012, Allied leaders gave their blessing to establish this facility to “strengthen political dialogue and practical cooperation in the ICI” and “help us to better understand common security challenges, and discuss how to address them together.”

Five years later, NATO and Kuwait signed an agreement that enabled the Centre to formally open its doors. A small but dedicated multinational team set out to achieve its mission: to enhance cooperation through courses and activities open to NATO, the GCC and their members. It brought to life what Allied leaders had envisioned in Chicago in 2012, to “encourage our ICI partner countries to be proactive in exploiting the opportunities offered by their partnership with NATO” and “remain open to receiving new members in the ICI.”

A small multinational team runs the NATO-ICI Regional Centre, which opened in Kuwait in 2017. The Centre offers courses and activities to NATO, the GCC and their members. © NATO

The Centre focuses on areas of strategic interest, where substantive knowledge can be shared in both directions, such as energy security, cyber defence, maritime security, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence, and crisis management. For the first time, the ICI and NATO gained a permanent regional hub for cooperation of a practical and multilateral character. Since it opened in 2017, the NATO-ICI Regional Centre has welcomed more than 1000 officials, experts and practitioners from across NATO and all GCC countries, to share experience and build closer bonds of friendship and common understanding.

Deepening cooperation

NATO Allies and ICI partners marked the 15th anniversary of ICI by holding a meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s principal political decision-making body) at the NATO-ICI Regional Centre in Kuwait on 15 and 16 December 2019.

There are many reasons to celebrate. Regular interactions between NATO and Gulf partners have built a strong foundation for the future. The ICI countries now have the tools needed to gain the full benefit from education and training opportunities NATO has to offer. They have adopted individual partnership and cooperation programmes and signed agreements on the sharing of information and cross-border transit. The partners have also gained access to NATO standards and programmes that serve as building blocks for growing local expertise and capacity.

Partnership is two-way and mutually beneficial. Kuwait contributed a military officer who became an integral part of the NATO Defense College teaching staff. The partner status of Qatar and the UAE facilitated their participation with military personnel and aircraft in NATO-led Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011. NATO and ICI countries have worked together at sea within the Combined Maritime Forces to counter piracy and protect maritime security in the Gulf. Most importantly, an atmosphere of mutual trust underpins relations, creating fertile ground for deepened cooperation in such areas as operations, non-proliferation efforts and defence and security sector institution building and reform.

Ambassadors of the North Atlantic Council met with Istanbul Cooperation Initiative partners in Kuwait City, on 16 December 2019, to mark the 15th anniversary of the partnership forum. Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council were also represented at the meeting. © NATO

Stronger together

NATO and Gulf countries have worked and served together during moments in which the strategic environment has propelled adaptation and cooperation, for example around Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Since 2001, terrorism in its many forms continues to strike many cities and communities in the Gulf and NATO, piercing the heart of our societies. The victims of these tragic attacks are all part of a shared humanity. As His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, the Amir of Kuwait, fittingly said of the victims of the tragic ISIS/Da’esh terrorist attack on a Shia mosque on 26 June 2015, “those are my children.”

All GCC countries and NATO Allies, as well as NATO itself, are part of the US-led Global Coalition Against Da’esh. Speaking at the 15th anniversary ICI event in Kuwait, NATO’s Secretary General emphasised that “despite significant progress made by the Coalition, Da’esh remains a threat. Conducting terrorist attacks here in the region and around the world.”

Now more than ever, NATO and other multilateral organisations and frameworks carry a duty to deepen ties and cooperate to prevent instability and violence. In this the Allies and their ICI partners share a firm conviction: the understanding of the need to engage, innovate, and work ever closer together to preserve the fabric of our societies.

“Our world is an increasingly unpredictable place. The best way to deal with that uncertainty is to be prepared. So we must continue to strengthen the links between our forces. And their ability to work together. But as well as military cooperation, we should further deepen our political consultation,” underlined Secretary General Stoltenberg.