While President Barack Obama was hardly welcomed with open arms during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, behind the scenes, progress is being made on a new “trilateral alliance,” involving the United States, NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This effort transcends the Obama Administration, and has been slowly moving forward for the past dozen years.
Obama Administration sources claim that in the closed-door discussions with King Salman, President Obama was able to counter Saudi fears of a burgeoning US-Iran alliance by spelling out US plans to deepen cooperation with the GCC countries, which would include efforts to contain Iran’s regional destabilizing actions.
While this Administration spin is dubious, the deeper process of military cooperation and eventual integration between US, NATO and GCC forces was the subject of talks led by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, CIA Director John Brennan and top officials from the US Central Command, who met with GCC counterparts the day before Obama arrived in Riyadh, in preparation for Obama’s meeting with the GCC heads of state. Carter and Brennan have also established strong lines of communication with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman, which is another venue through which the military cooperation is quietly moving forward.
As reported in MEB, the idea of a formal NATO-GCC alliance has been on the table for years, with former Obama Administration National Security Advisor General James Jones (a former Commander-in-Chief of NATO) promoting the idea at a 2010 conference at the National Defense University in Washington.
In fact, the formal framework for an eventual NATO-GCC integration has been in place since 2004, when the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) was launched on the sidelines of the NATO summit in the Turkish capital. Four GCC countries formally joined the ICI, which established military-to-military cooperation with NATO on a country-by-country basis. Those four GCC states—Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait—were joined in December 2014 by Saudi Arabia and Oman at the tenth anniversary conference of the ICI in Doha. At that session, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spelled out three immediate areas of greater NATO-GCC ICI cooperation: increased military cooperation, maritime security and political consultations. He cited the Libya campaign as a recent example of NATO and GCC military integration, and invited all of the GCC countries to join NATO’s “Ocean Shield” counter-piracy program.
At an earlier ICI meeting in 2011, Kuwait had proposed to host an ICI Regional Center, which would be a point of integration between NATO and the four GCC states formally part of the ICI.
GCC countries are also being encouraged to join NATO’s Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence in Enschede, Netherlands, and its Centre of Excellence Defense Against Terrorism headquarters in Ankara. These centers engage in practical coordination of military and civilian defense personnel, establishing the kinds of personal channels of communication that will be vital to more formal NATO-GCC force integration in the future.
The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative founding charter provided for membership expansion, even beyond the GCC states, to include “all interested countries in the region who subscribe to the aim and content of this initiative, including the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
In addition to the ICI, NATO earlier established a Mediterranean Dialogue, with similar objectives of security cooperation, increased systems interoperability and intelligence sharing. The member countries of the Mediterranean Dialogue, in addition to the 26 NATO countries are: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. At the December 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, Libya was formally invited to join the Mediterranean Dialogue. With new priority attached to the fight against the Islamic State in Libya, some NATO and US military officials are looking at the near-term prospect of joint military actions against ISIL in North Africa, which would be a concrete opportunity to expand force integration, albeit on an ad hoc basis.
While both of these formal partnership structures exist, there are clear obstacles that stand in the way of rapid integration of NATO and the GCC. These obstacles are not insurmountable and there is already progress. The GCC is moving forward with the creation of a joint military command, which is vital to the plans for further integration with NATO. Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in promoting this joint command, including greater attention towards common weapons systems that also match up with NATO capacities.
Another issue that must be resolved is the role of two leading Arab military powers—Egypt and Pakistan—in the NATO-Middle East military integration. While Saudi Arabia has, by far, the biggest military budget in the Arab world (Saudi Arabia’s annual defense expenditures this year passed Russia’s budgeting), Pentagon and NATO officials believe that some form of involvement by Egypt and/or Pakistan is vital for there to be a viable Arab military force to partner with NATO.
Both Egypt and Pakistan refused Saudi requests for military assistance in the Yemen war, while the United States and Great Britain have actively participated.
[In their talks in Riyadh, President Obama and Defense Secretary Carter both emphasized concerns over Al Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen. In the days following the summit, Saudi and UAE military forces launched effective bombing and ground operations against Al Qaeda positions in Yemen.]
Washington sources emphasize that the NATO-GCC integration is “down the road,” but remains a clear priority objective. That will remain the case regardless of who wins the November presidential elections in the United States. In the interim, as efforts like the ICI and Mediterranean Dialogue mature, the United States military will continue to take the lead in moving the integration process forward.
Washington will continue to pursue “coalitions of the willing” to address issues like the war against the Islamic State. The anti-ISIL coalition that was forged in Paris on September 15, 2014 included leading Arab states: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (all six of the GCC states).
But even as these coalitions take up the immediate issues of fighting ISIL, dealing with piracy, the refugee crisis and humanitarian and natural disasters, the process of formal institutional collaboration is always prominent in the minds of NATO and Pentagon officials, who see NATO building partnerships that will form the basis of the core security architecture for the twenty-first century. And nowhere is such an architecture more essential than in the extended Middle East.