NATO’s efforts to establish patterns of cooperation with countries in the Middle East and North Africa have not prospered. With the exception of the Libya campaign, the Alliance has not played a significant role in addressing conflicts in the region. NATO has assiduously avoided involvement in the Syria conflict or in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Formal NATO cooperative mechanisms —the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative—have fallen far short of expectations.

Formal NATO Instruments Have Little Impact

The two formal mechanisms for NATO interaction with countries in the Middle East region are the Mediterranean Dialogue (Med Dialogue) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).   Both are largely based on NATO bilateral ties with countries in the region and provide occasional political consultations in regional capitals and Brussels, limited training opportunities for partner countries, and some modest joint exercises.  According to both NATO officials and partner countries, neither the Med Dialogue, launched in 1994, nor the ICI, started in 2004, has been a great success.1  Both initiatives are largely confined to a public affairs-type approach, managed by a handful of over-worked staff at NATO headquarters, and reflect the ambivalence of both NATO and some of the regional participants about an expanded NATO role in the region.  

Part of their weakness is a lack of clarity about their intended purpose. NATO’s involvement in the Middle East has been largely driven by the perception that the greatest threats facing the alliance–terrorism and proliferation—are likely to emanate from within this area.  NATO engagement is driven largely by efforts to counter or reduce these threats, whereas regional participants do not view their region as the source of threats to the West, and in fact, many believe that Western interference has been a source of instability, as in Iraq.  For those in the region that do value NATO as an institution, some want access to NATO to strengthen their own security, some value the political symbolism of an association with NATO but want little more, and some see NATO partnership as an element in countering the ambitions of large regional powers, notably Iran.  However, regional enthusiasm has been tempered by the perception that NATO is not interested in providing full access to its capabilities or to the kinds of security commitments that would make a crucial difference to their security if attacked.  This has led American analysts familiar with the initiatives to note that any new effort must deal explicitly with what NATO expects from partners and what partners expect from NATO. 

Despite their limited utility, the Med Dialogue and the ICI have facilitated a process of exchange and helped introduced a significant number of military personnel from the region to NATO training and ways of doing business.  Some would go so far as claim that the cooperation on NATO’s Libya operation would not have been possible without the contacts and shared experience developed through NATO’s ICI and Med Dialogue. This initial experience has helped identify the key challenges NATO will face if it decides to take cooperation to a more profound level.  

Lessons of Fighting Together

Two instances of direct NATO involvement in the region hold some lessons for cooperation, although they do not provide a clear guide for future joint work. Regional heavyweights and the Arab League encouraged NATO to be involved in Libya, for example, and the outcome of the military campaign was largely viewed as successful across the political spectrum.  Yet the NATO umbrella for military action had more to do with addressing intra-European and American political considerations than it did with the emergence of a new and viable type of NATO-Middle East partnership. Few people in the region or within NATO would view the Libya experience as a model to combat future threats; rather, it is viewed as a unique case where Western and regional interests coincided very clearly.   That said human resources, equipment, weapons, and technology from NATO countries and Middle East allies were joined together in fighting against a common foe in the MENA region.  Furthermore, there was widespread support in the region for NATO’s involvement, no small political accomplishment given bruising political differences about the Iraq campaign.  

If we look to the east of the region, Afghanistan is the other major example of joint combat work between NATO and countries in the Middle East. This participation was based on requests from the United States to its regional allies for assistance with military operations in another Muslim-majority country.   While the individual performance of some of the forces from the Middle East has been welcome and useful, this participation had little to do with NATO’s formal partnership initiatives. While working together in difficult military operations has undoubtedly provided useful operational experience, it has not resulted in any consensus about how NATO should fashion its future ties with MENA countries, or how it should engage in addressing threats emanating from the Middle East.   What it has done, however, is identify some of the operational difficulties of working together in combat zones.  These joint military actions have provided a real-world case study about the challenges of interoperability, one of the hallmarks of NATO’s approach that rarely gets tested in the Middle East.   Military planners should make sure that lessons from both Libya and Afghanistan are documented and used to inform any future approaches to cooperation.   

Bilateral Ties Dominant

Among NATO members, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have the deepest military ties to the region, both through their military links and presence on the ground (a longstanding part of the security landscape in the Gulf), and through their sale of weapons systems. The regional partners’ relations with NATO have little direct bearing on these bilateral relationships. One cannot imagine, for example, that CENTCOM commanders consider in their plans how their relationships with Gulf States could be influenced or enhanced by the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The ICI does not possess the military or political significance to be worthy of integration into planning against genuine security problems. Nor do the NATO initiatives have the same range of tools that bilateral relationships possess, in particular, continuous cooperation among intelligence and non-military security entities, nor the depth and breadth of confidential policy discussions between key bilateral partners in the region.

Some argue that Gulf States’ relationship with major NATO allies mirrors a relationship with NATO.    This may be partially true for the NATO side, in that these bilateral relationships do serve NATO’s interests in the region, but there is little evidence to suggest that policy makers in the Gulf, for example, somehow see a reflection of NATO in their close bilateral links to the United States or the United Kingdom.  Some of the bilateral and NATO objectives are the same – interoperability of major defensive systems in the Gulf for example – but the primary paradigm of the ties is bilateral.  

Particularly in the Gulf region, the armed forces’ operational focus is largely consumed by integration of complex, expensive weapons systems purchased from major NATO members. This hybrid of official state and commercial interests could in some cases be considered the most significant element of the security relationship between NATO members and Middle Eastern states. However, this huge enterprise has no real reflection in NATO partnerships. Given the competitive nature of the defense business and the tendency of the buyers and sellers to share as little information as possible about their capabilities, the flow of new weapons into the region is unlikely to be easily integrated into NATO planning with Middle Eastern partners or even regional planning among Middle Eastern states.  This lack of cooperation appears in the very limited success that NATO members countries have had in encouraging interoperability among the more capable Middle Eastern militaries. 

Given the mixed record of NATO’s involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, the predominance of bilateral ties, and the competing demands on dwindling NATO defense resources, NATO needs to take a close look at its ties to the Middle East, and decide whether and how to forge a new approach. 

Options for Consideration:   1) Zero Option   2) More of the Same, Plus    3) Big Picture

Zero option:   NATO may not be an effective vehicle for meaningful interactions between the West and the Middle East.  From the perspective of NATO member country interests, it is unclear whether NATO is able to add much value in the Middle East, beyond that derived from existing strong bilateral ties. From the vantage point of the Middle Eastern countries, the perspective on gains from stronger NATO relations is mixed; some countries eschew any significant NATO role and others are disappointed by the lack of a more vigorous and expansive formal role for NATO for their defense needs.  While a zero option may not be politically palatable to a NATO Alliance that talks so much about partnership, it is abundantly apparent that current arrangements are not optimal for either NATO or MENA partners.

More of the Same, PLUS:  Most commentators in the United States and Europe see value in a strengthened relationship between NATO and Middle Eastern partners, but without much ambition for a radically different set of arrangements. Thus, some analysts on both sides of the Atlantic recommend a vague strengthening of the political dialogue, which might include, for example, access for some of NATO’s regional partners to a right of consultation similar to Article 8 in the Partnership for Peace arrangements. Article 8 calls for consultations with NATO if a “partner perceives a direct threat to its territorial integrity, political independence, or security.”   Others have suggested appointment of a NATO special representative for the Middle East.  The “plus” strategy could also include a thorough review of current activities to re-focus efforts where both sides’ interests are the strongest, as well as recognizing new regional capabilities that should be considered as part of a broad defense against mutual threats.  These capabilities could then, for example, form the basis for exercises and contingency planning with willing partners.  

To have a chance of success, a “more of the same, plus” approach, however, requires a shift in the NATO mindset from viewing Middle East countries primarily as a source of threats to viewing them as genuine partners. It ultimately requires greater participation by key regional players, particularly Saudi Arabia, as well as more substantial participation by others, such as Egypt.

The Big Picture Option:   In a “big picture” approach, NATO’s strategy on partnerships would be integrated into the smart defense strategy, and not sit awkwardly alongside it like a poor relative.   In his paper, Jean-Loup Samaan says the time has come to revamp the ICI and suggests that an “ambitious but at the same time realistic strategic dialogue with Gulf countries could help the Alliance reassess its approach to the Middle East.”  A first step in this direction would be to eliminate the artificial divisions between the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in favor of a more comprehensive entity such as the “Strategic Consultative Group” suggested by Frank Kramer.2    Attempts would be made to better integrate the bilateral military/security/economic ties of key NATO member and regional parties into NATO’s own planning.  A broader option might also include the European Union, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council as partners.3  This “big picture” option does not require a larger military role for NATO in the Middle East but it does require a more meaningful long-term approach, well beyond tweaking of current policies and instruments.

What’s Possible?

If effective partnerships are indeed critical to NATO’s future as an alliance, the need to revamp its links to the Middle East and North Africa is urgent. This will require a commitment of political attention and resources in the first instance, and at least a modest increase in NATO staffing.  Given ambivalence about the relationship from both NATO and MENA countries, along with declining defense budgets in the West, the likelihood of mobilizing for a big picture approach is minimal. The more of the same plus option is worth pursuing, with a particular focus on refining the interests to be served and the obligations on both sides. Building on lessons from Libya and Afghanistan, NATO should focus its efforts on those countries in the region with military capabilities and the will to use them against common adversaries. While this incremental option will not produce a new comprehensive framework for future cooperation, it may be an adequate model going forward for any serious NATO participation in Middle East security – partnering with Middle Eastern states and organizations when confronted by specific shared security threats.

Richard LeBaron is visiting senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and will be working on the Gulf region and leading a joint Hariri Center-Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security initiative, A Strategic Dialogue for a New US-Gulf Partnership.

[1]For a recent evaluation of the ICI, see Jean-Loup Samaan, “NATO in the Gulf: Partnership Without a Cause?,” Research Paper, NATODefenseCollege, October, 2012.

[2] Franklin D. Kramer, “Transatlantic Nations and Global Security: Pivoting and Partnerships,” Atlantic Council, March, 2012.

[3] For more ideas on an expanded NATO approach, see Atlantic Memo #39, “Partners in Democracy, Partners in Security: NATO and the Arab Spring,” April, 2012 by AlexanderCorbeil, Gillian Kennedy, Geoffrey Levin, Vivien Pertusot, and Josiah Surface, published at

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