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, NATO launched a maritime security operation in the Mediterranean and 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.
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.
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 (Kuwait, and Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE) became formal members while Oman and Saudi Arabia refrained from joining, retaining their invitee status and cooperating with NATO on a case-by-case basis. This 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 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.
Even before Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg could call it “NATO’s new home in the Gulf,” Allies recognised the offer by Kuwait in 2012 to host a “NATO-ICI Regional Centre” as a proposal with enormous potential. 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. 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.
Hence, NATO Allies and ICI partners have many reasons to celebrate the 15th anniversary of ICI. 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. But the partnership is two-way and mutually beneficial. For example, Kuwait contributed a military officer who became an integral part of the NATO Defense College teaching staff. NATO and ICI countries have also 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.
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. And 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.
‚The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative at 15‘ – Article by Amanda Webb – NATO Review.