A role for NATO in the Gulf?

The debate over a possible role for NATO vis-a-vis Gulf security arrangements has received increasing attention over the past two years, in particular in conjunction with the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and the subsequent widespread lack of security in the country that has continued unabated until today underlined the fact that past attempts at bringing about a more stable Gulf security architecture have not succeeded. From "Pax Britannica" to "Twin-Pillar" to "Balance of Power" to dual containment and ultimately to US hegemony, none led to a more systematic interaction among the regional states or between them and relevant external actors. The result is a cycle of permanent crisis that feeds on mutual antagonisms to sustain itself.

With the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, one of the main obstacles toward a more cooperative security arrangement has been eliminated, although as events over the past 18 months indicate, this has not resolved the security dilemma itself. In fact, it is not too farfetched to argue that promoting security in the Gulf has become even more problematic in light of the US failure to correctly anticipate the difficulties associated with the post-war reconstruction process in Iraq, which in turn has served to galvanize varieties of opposition to the US occupation and its broader role in the region. The current discussion about a possible confrontation between the US and Iran over the latter’s suspected nuclear program further underscores the volatility of the present situation.

In light of these developments a debate has ensued about a possible NATO role in the Gulf, although the precise parameters of that debate remain largely undefined. The momentum driving such a consideration has come mainly from two sides: NATO itself and some of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As an organization, NATO continues to strive to define a role for itself. With its mandate now stretching into Central Asia and Afghanistan, there is a need to look more closely at the impact of Gulf regional events on the overall Middle East security environment. In addition, NATO wants to avoid another fiasco like the one in Iraq where internal wrangling among its members over the war’s justification led the organization to appear incompetent and superfluous.

The result of the internal reevaluation process was the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative issued in June 2004 where NATO announced its readiness "to undertake a new initiative in the broader Middle East region to further contribute to long-term global and regional security and stability…". Deputy Secretary-General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo in a visit to the Gulf Research Center in September 2004 characterized the initiative as a step forward for the "transformed alliance" to move away from being Euro-centric and respond to new challenges.

The second impetus has come from the region itself based on the realization, as mentioned above, that past efforts have done little to alleviate the structural deficits of Gulf security. It was Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani who first proposed the idea of a NATO-GCC dialogue in late 2002, in turn leading to a conference on "NATO’s Transformation & Gulf Security" in April 2004 in Doha. From other quarters as well, consideration of new types of arrangements is evident. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made that clear in December 2004 when he spoke of the "urgent need" for "developing a new and more solid framework for Gulf security".

Given such consideration, is a role for NATO in future Gulf security arrangements realistic and does it represent an alternative worth pursuing? To be sure, both sides continue to speak in generalities, with NATO officials stretching themselves to emphasize the organization’s modest objectives and underlining that nothing will be imposed on the region. Similarly, Gulf officials voice support for a dialogue but refrain from proposing specific mechanisms.

In that context, there would appear to be three prerequisites that have to be met if the current discussion is to lead to anything substantive. First, the situation in Iraq has to calm down to move toward greater stability. NATO will have to meet part of that burden. Second, a NATO foray into the Gulf would primarily mean a broader European role in security arrangements. NATO cannot be seen as a simple substitute for the US role in different clothing. And third, and in relation to the previous point, the GCC States cannot look at NATO as a substitute for the present US role.

If a lasting Gulf security system is ever to come about, it needs to be based on the notions of consensus, inclusiveness and functionalism. And that in turn requires a greater determination to promote regional interaction and cooperation among all the regional states, including Iraq, Iran and Yemen.