In Year of Summits, Weighing the Benefits and Challenges of NATO-GCC Cooperation

The passports of high-ranking NATO and GCC officials seem to tell a tale of impending dialogue in the coming days. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent flights to Kuwait, the UAE, and Washington, and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani’s visit to Brussels presage talk of the GCC working with NATO next week in Riyadh and at NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July. Whether or not the discussion of NATO-GCC cooperation persists from Spring into Summer will be largely dependent on the United States’ ability to persuade its Gulf partners that multilateral engagement with NATO is a mutually beneficial and worthwhile pursuit.

According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the US-GCC Riyadh summit will “[evaluate] whether or not the concept of a GCC-NATO partnership…would contribute significantly to the security and stability of the region.” This prompts two main considerations: is NATO-GCC cooperation a desirable and a feasible objective that serves US interests?

The United States would undoubtedly welcome mutually beneficial cooperation between NATO and the GCC, which could see the former institution help build the latter’s collective military capabilities. In the words of Stoltenberg, NATO could help the GCC “[develop] its ability to command large multinational operations” and “[build] and [maintain] an integrated military structure.” The development of NATO regional cooperation centers like the one already underway in Kuwait could foster military-to-military cooperation and civil-military partnerships that could benefit the GCC, as well as political consultations to allow both parties to better coordinate on pressing regional issues.

For its part, the GCC would have an important role to play in helping any of NATO’s expeditionary operations navigate regional political sensitivities and customs, much as the UAE did with NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The GCC could provide insight and materiel support as NATO undertakes its new training efforts in Iraq, not to mention the help the Gulf states could afford Europe with counterterrorism and information-sharing in light of the past year’s attacks.

With significant forward presences of key French and British NATO allies already in the Gulf, the Alliance and its members could ease the US’s burden as regional security guarantor. In its most recent national security strategy, the UK made a permanent Gulf presence a central tenet of its regional policy. Higher involvement by NATO in general and larger European allies specifically, featuring careful consultation and coordination with the GCC, could directly serve US interests while leaving open the possibility for a lighter US military footprint in the Gulf.

But for all of these potential benefits, challenges remain. Mistrust and occasional rivalry within the GCC have led to uneasiness around sharing knowledge of partner country capabilities, a necessary step for military interoperability and shared command and control mechanisms in areas like collective missile defense. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE slowly work through differences with Qatar over its past support for the Muslim Brotherhood and various regional affiliates, GCC-wide security cooperation will take time to reach its full potential.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s (and to a far lesser extent Oman’s) resistance to NATO cooperation has slowed the Alliance’s traction with the GCC as a whole. One of several shortcomings of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), the NATO partnership body established with four of the six GCC states and other regional partners in 2004, was its inability to elicit the support of the largest Gulf Arab state. For an initiative aimed at “[forming] the bedrock of NATO’s relations with the countries of the region,” the ICI has been largely ignored in most NATO discourse since its founding. A move toward a partnership framework that incorporates the entire GCC is much needed.

Finally, NATO and the GCC have fundamentally different conceptions of the primary threat to security and stability in the region. For NATO, Islamist terrorism, primarily from the Islamic State (ISIS) but also from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, foments sectarian strife, breeds security threats in Iraq and Syria’s ungoverned spaces, and drives refugees into Europe. Meanwhile, the GCC states remain ever-focused on the threat of Iran’s asymmetric activities, which they view as drivers of the region’s most pressing conflicts.

Given these prominent challenges, the United States should undertake significant measures if it is to reap the benefits of NATO-GCC cooperation. Fortunately, the United States is ideally positioned to manage relations between NATO and the GCC with these steps.

The United States can facilitate practical NATO-GCC cooperation in the issue areas prioritized at Camp David. In addition to laying a foundation for US-GCC cooperation on pressing regional security challenges, the May 2015 Camp David summit between President Barack Obama and GCC leaders spawned ongoing multilateral cooperation through working groups on missile defense, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, arms transfers, and maritime security. The United States should extend these working-level channels of cooperation with the GCC to incorporate a NATO presence. The United States could facilitate and manage these existing multilateral frameworks, allowing NATO to contribute its expertise and build a rapport with the GCC that benefits all parties. Additionally, US commitments from Camp David to work with the GCC against Iran’s asymmetric capabilities and destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East could help bridge the gap between the differing threat perceptions of NATO and the GCC.

The United States can encourage the Gulf states to pursue deepened bilateral cooperation with NATO alongside GCC-wide efforts. A practical, stepping-stone approach that compliments NATO-GCC cooperation with stronger bilateral relationships between individual GCC states and NATO or key NATO states could provide a firm basis for future multilateral cooperation. At present, it would likely prove difficult for the GCC as a whole to work with NATO beyond cooperating on “big ticket items” like counterterrorism, cyber, and maritime security. However, Kuwait’s recent transit agreement with the Alliance to ease transport to Afghanistan and the UAE’s exploration of an Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP) are promising signs that some Gulf states see value in working with NATO. Advancing partnerships of the willing, especially as key NATO members like the UK and France increase their presences in Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman, could demonstrate the benefits and obligations of partnership to the wider GCC without undermining existing multilateral cooperation.

Lastly, the United States should encourage Saudi buy-in to NATO-GCC partnership; otherwise, broad-based GCC cooperation could go the way of the ICI. Even before US and Saudi ties became fraught of late, this would have been considered a difficult task. Nonetheless, the United States can demonstrate that NATO offers benefits beyond the traditional US-Saudi relationship if it hopes truly to get multilateral NATO-GCC cooperation off the ground in the final months of the Obama presidency. Encouraging NATO to move beyond referencing the largely-defunct ICI framework and to support the Saudi-led Islamic coalition against terrorism might lead the Kingdom to support a multilateral partnership through the GCC.

In this year of tough talk, elections, and summit meetings, NATO-GCC cooperation may consist of more words than actions. But if cooperation is to materialize going forward, it will require hard work and a measure of patience that must likely last beyond this administration.

Owen Daniels is a Program Assistant with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative.

Image: Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (NATO)(