The Gulf and NATO: time to revisit relations

Posted in NATO , Broader Middle East | 07-Jan-09 | Author: Abdulaziz Sager| Source: NATO Review

The Saudi Abqaiq oil refinery plant, which has been the subject of more than one attempted attack.

With key security issues such as Iran, Iraq and oil all on their doorstep, Gulf States need to think about a new direction for their security arrangements, argues Abdulaziz Sager. Here, he shares his own views on why more cooperation with NATO may be one of the answers.

The way the current financial crisis has gripped the world clearly shows how no region in the world can remain isolated.

Take the Gulf region for example. A recent report by the Gulf Research Center on the Impact of the US Financial Crisis on GCC Countries shows that in addition to having considerable assets in the United States which have lost value in a short period, GCC states (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) also have to deal with funding and liquidity issues that have now tightened and which in turn have impacted their own domestic economic development.

In GCC equity markets, some bourses have lost more than 40 percent of their value since the beginning of 2008. This not only underlined the large-scale inter-relationships that exist but also the role that will be expected of GCC states in bringing about a renewed sense of stability in world financial markets.

British Premier Gordon Brown made this clear during a visit to the Gulf States at the beginning of November 2008 when he called on countries like Saudi Arabia and other leading Arab Gulf oil producers to contribute to a new fund facility being created within the International Monetary Fund.

What the recent crisis also illustrates is that the Gulf region, already the most strategically important part of the world, has an economic as well as security-related stake that is closely related and intricately tied to both regional and international developments.

What is often not understood, however, is that the impact works both ways.

Events in the Gulf region have consequences far beyond the regional borders. This can be in the price for a barrel of oil, the increasing role of Gulf investment in Western countries, the instability in Iraq, the threat from terrorism, or the possibility of Iran militarising their nuclear programme.

As a result, just as the Gulf cannot effectively isolate itself from the turmoil happening in the rest of the world, the key actors on international security and stability cannot afford to ignore the Gulf or pretend that developments there can be contained.

It is from this perspective that recent events on both the security and the economic front need to be seen.

In more direct security terms, it is important to realise that the role played by the GCC states is an integral part of the movement towards a regional security solution.

Up to now, the main strategy to provide for Gulf security has been to rely on one big external power, the United States, to maintain the status quo, regulate the relationships among the regional states, and provide at least a minimum of security or a sense thereof. Given the often hostile attitude of their neighbours, the Arab Gulf States increasingly saw their own state and regime security tied to the military power and protection of the United States.

It was not necessarily because the US was going to resolve all existing and underlying security dilemmas, but because it would, at a minimum, prevent the main regional antagonists, Iran and Iraq, from putting their plans into action and realising their designs. As a result, the US has become a regional power and has firmly entrenched itself in the regional strategic debate.

Yet the widened dependence on the US has proven not to be the answer for achieving lasting security in the Gulf.

The US has taken various approaches to ensure regional security. Its twin pillar policy of the 1970s caused it to rely on Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its balance-of-power approach in the 1980s strengthened Iraq vis-à-vis a revolutionary Iran. 1990s, its dual containment was intended to isolate both Iran and Iraq at the same time. And in 2003 its approach led finally to outright intervention and invasion of Iraq.

But not one of those approaches has managed to give the region the outlines of a better security environment. Each policy simply supplied the seeds for the next crisis.

From an American perspective, the situation has become equally untenable given that the US military has found itself shouldering an increasing burden at a time when its military and political role has become the target of regional frustration and extremism. Following eight years of the unilateral policies pursued by the Bush administration and coupled with the recent financial crisis which began in the US, it is clear to me that the United States is as much a problem as it is a solution to regional issues.

All of this is to suggest a redirection in the way the Arab Gulf states should view their security. To be sure, the relationship between the US and the GCC countries remains strong. Given their own very real security concerns, the GCC governments cannot afford to suddenly cut their ties and look for alternate security arrangements.

Yet, a shift is occurring which is already leading to the increased internationalisation of the Gulf and which includes both the expanded involvement of powers from Europe and Asia in addition to re-shifting the focus of the Arab Gulf States about their place in the international system and the role played by the United States within that context.

It is within this overall debate that the idea and concept of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) and its application towards the Gulf region need to be placed. When NATO began its initiative towards the region within the context of the 2004 Istanbul summit, the idea and concept behind it was often described as either too vague or too ambitious.

On the one hand, ICI was perceived as a grand scheme that would resolve all the problems associated with the US presence while at the same time providing the GCC states with the security they require to ensure their longevity and stability.

On the other hand, others argued that ICI was nothing more than a US presence in sheep’s clothing and that what ICI offered was not necessarily what the region required.

Most importantly, what was missing was the concept of multilateralism in the sense that while NATO approached the region as a multilateral organisation, ICI was essentially a bilateral program applied to GCC states individually.

In light of the fact that the Gulf security dilemma remains unresolved, that the GCC states continue to face the twin challenges of a threatening Iran and an unstable Iraq, and the recent turmoil which has underscored the interdependency between the GCC and the rest of the world, the ICI initiative needs to be revisited to better understand where its actual value lies.

This initially involves an assessment that instead of seeing ICI as something suspicious and filled with ulterior motives, places the initiative as a first step of an evolving relationship based on better and deeper cooperation.

ICI is not the automatic solution to the Gulf’s regional security dilemmas – but neither was it ever intended to be.

Rather, it is part of a gradual process that can highlight possible areas of cooperation and proceed to establish concrete areas of mutual interests and common objectives. In the end, ICI offers what the recipient countries want it to offer and it is up to the GCC states to decide what they want to receive from the NATO alliance.

More important is the increased realisation that ICI represents a mechanism through which the GCC states can see their security concerns being best represented and as such there is a need for the GCC states to strengthen their relations with NATO.

As far as Gulf security is concerned, China, Russia, India and other Asian states are no alternatives and cannot be viewed as replacements for the US in the region. While the US military role in the region does come with its own problems and complications, it does remain an integral part of assuring the independence and sovereignty of the GCC states in a dangerous and unpredictable neighbourhood.

At the same time, under the new US administration, Washington might move towards a position where, due to domestic pressures or financial reasons, it decides to reduce its military presence in the overall Gulf region as well as move towards internationalising its presence in Iraq. Under such conditions, closer ties between NATO and the GCC become a viable alternative that can assist the region with the stability it requires, while at the same time maintaining the links to the necessary presence of the US.

Moreover, ICI is the right platform to enhance regional cooperation and coordination.

Consequently, it is time for the GCC to send a strong signal to NATO of their desire to see cooperation under ICI deepened and expanded.

And while Saudi Arabia and Oman have so far not joined ICI, such a new course might speed up developments and accelerate the process where they would consider joining.

Abdulaziz Sager is Chairman of the Gulf Research Center and can be reached at [email protected]