Over the course of the past ten years, NATO[1] has consistently invited Saudi Arabia and Oman to join the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), which launched in 2004 as a cooperation framework between NATO and the GCC countries. So far, the ICI contains just four Gulf partners (Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates), and neither Riyadh nor Muscat has accepted the invitation. However, both countries sent delegations to take part in a NATO seminar held in Doha on December 11, 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of the ICI. Moreover, Mohammed Abdullah al-Rumaihi, an assistant to the Qatari foreign minister, was quoted as saying that the GCC had proposed widening its partnership with NATO to include Saudi Arabia and Oman.[2]

The possibility of both countries—which together account for approximately 70 percent of the Gulf countries’ defense expenditures—joining the ICI is not the only landmark change in GCC defense arrangements that is currently under discussion. In fact, wider changes are on their way, according to the final statement of the 35th GCC summit held in Doha a few days before the NATO seminar. In this statement, the GCC Supreme Council both praised the steps already taken toward a unified military command and suggested accelerating GCC defense integration. No details about this new command have been given yet. Nothing has been declared officially about its budget or where it will be based, or what kind of relationship it will have with the Peninsula Shield, the current GCC combined military force.

However, press leaks about the new command have been published in Saudi-funded Arabic newspapers such as Al Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat. Requesting anonymity, senior Gulf officials have told these newspapers that the new command will coordinate between GCC member states and the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism, adding that military cooperation between member states is a positive development. Some commentators have already voiced the expectation that the GCC will form an “Arab NATO” to face the region’s new security challenges.

GCC member states' increased participation in NATO's ICI seminar in Doha suggests a coordinated movement toward widening the relationship with NATO as part of a wider change in defense arrangements. Nonetheless, such a coordinated shift was only hinted at—not mentioned explicitly—in the 35th GCC summit final statement.

Generally speaking, the achievements of the ICI over the last decade have not been very promising. That might be because its structure, which is based on bilateral agreements between NATO and each GCC partner rather than multilateral agreements, has prevented the development of a unified GCC vision toward the strategic partnership with NATO. In light of recent developments—the possible joining of Riyadh and Muscat and suggestions of an emerging GCC common defense strategy—a new version of the ICI might lead to a different outcome in the coming decade. However, some obstacles may still persist, such as the lack of consensus among member states on key strategic issues. For example, Qatar’s support for Syrian opposition groups makes its approach to the Syrian conflict different than other GCC countries. Doha is the only GCC capital that hosts an embassy to represent the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, while embassies for the Assad regime still operate in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE. The changing nature of the terrorist threat and ongoing disagreements over the definition of terrorism could also hinder cooperation between GCC partners.

A clear definition of terrorism is important for successful cooperation between NATO and the Gulf countries. Who is the enemy? And what kind of strategy does the enemy employ? In the years following 9/11, there was an assumption within NATO that the primary enemies of the Alliance were no longer states but unconventional, non-state actors such as al-Qa‘ida.[3] Now in the post-Arab Spring era, the Islamic State (ISIS) can be considered neither a non-state actor nor a state. This presents a new challenge for NATO and its partners, requiring them to accurately define their target.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and this has been one of the main reasons behind disagreements between Qatar and other GCC countries. Although the 35th GCC summit statement did not mention the Brotherhood by name, it did mention terrorism, and it is not known how the GCC security agenda will be set, given the absence of an Arab and international consensus on whether or not to categorize the Brotherhood as a terror organization.   

In a wider Middle Eastern context, international military involvement in the region over the last few years suggests that the United States prefers to work under a wide international umbrella like the international coalition against ISIS or the coalition that participated—with NATO involvement—in the 2011 military campaign in Libya. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made this clear during the ICI opening in Doha when he mentioned that the cooperation between NATO and GCC countries in Libya was productive. He said that the Libya campaign was an example of NATO and Gulf partners working effectively, side by side.[4]

Taking these issues into consideration, NATO's role in the Gulf might be enhanced by two factors. First, U.S. interest in this region has decreased because of a focus shift toward the Pacific and a desire to limit U.S. military interventions abroad. Second, the recent strengthening of the European military presence in the Gulf could facilitate NATO involvement in the region. There is a newly established British military base in Bahrain, while a French base opened in the UAE in 2009.

There are three other variables that will also influence NATO's role in the Gulf in as-yet unknown ways. First, the Iran nuclear talks, as well as their eventual outcome, will affect the Western strategy toward the Gulf countries and Iran. Second, the results of the military campaign against ISIS, especially the ground battles, will impact NATO’s approach to the region. Finally, domestic power shifts in Saudi Arabia and Oman could affect the security postures of the Gulf countries. Sultan Qaboos of Oman remains in poor health, and talk of his succession has started already, while the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has instigated policy and power shifts in the country. Just hours after his brother’s death, the newly-crowned King Salman authorized new appointments for minister of defense, deputy crown prince, and royal court chief. These three factors might result in unrest in some Gulf countries. Under this scenario, NATO and a unified GCC military command both might have roles to play, and the nature of their roles will depend largely on the nature of their relationship.

Currently, it is unlikely that NATO will establish a permanent military base in the Gulf countries as military bases for NATO member states already exist. The ICI, in its new phase, can enhance NATO's role as a so-called “soft security” provider—that is, a provider of assets such as intelligence sharing, training opportunities, and strategic consultancies for ICI member states.[5] A Kuwaiti offer to host an ICI Regional Center, the first of its kind in the Gulf, can be considered a good example of this sort of cooperation. The offer was put forth in 2011, but no progress has been made since then. The developments of recent weeks might give added impetus for such projects.

[1] See Anwar al-Khatib, “GCC Pushes for Stronger Links with NATO,” Al-Araby Aljadeed, December 13, 2014, http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/7c905191-fb8a-4c2c-9718-d8fd5b8664be.

[2] Albert Bininachvili, “Re-energizing NATO Cooperation with the Gulf Region: What Role for Energy?,” Energy Security Forum 9 (July 2014), http://www.enseccoe.org/download/442/esf_2014_july.pdf.

[3] Alexandra Gheciu, “The Case of NATO,” in Routledge Handbook of Diplomacy and Statecraft, ed. B.J.C. McKercher (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “North Atlantic Council and Gulf Partners Discuss Greater Cooperation to Deal with Security Challenges,” December 11, 2014, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_115959.htm.

[5] Sally Khalifa Isaac, “NATO and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Security: Prospect for Burden Sharing,” NDC Forum Paper, NATO Defense College, Research Division, 2011.


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.