The idea of a NATO-style defensive military alliance for the Middle East has resurfaced ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region next month.
Despite the growing relations between Israel and the Gulf countries amid gradual American withdrawal from the region, several observers consider the emergence of a genuine NATO-style alliance unlikely for now. Although there is a greater will and push for broader regional cooperation, a joint security pact faces some obstacles.
A military alliance is an international agreement on national security, under which the allies agree to mutually protect and support each other in the event of any crisis that may arise. However, in the case of an Arab NATO, common security goals and a common threat have not been clearly defined.
There are other potential issues. First, the countries expected to be involved in this pact have diverse security systems and military engagements. Second, the pact expects to be formed against Iran, but there are differing views on Iran’s policies in the region. Third, not every country has normalized relations with Israel to form a common pact. Last, some of the possible members have developed their own security mechanisms mostly against domestic threats rather than external ones.
Also, the strategies and policy tools that could be applied to cope with common threats have not been identified. Most discussion has been focused on cooperation in air defense, which could pave the way for sharing intelligence and military operational plans to prevent attacks. In this regard, Turkey, with its significant capabilities in air defense, couldbe an important partner for such an alliance rather than being a member of it.
In the past two decades, Turkey has engaged with each GCC country through defense and military cooperation. Ankara was also instrumental in launching the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in 2004 which involved the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. These partnerships were later revised to include a variety of activities ranging from diplomatic consultations to training activities.
For instance, in 2017, NATO and Kuwait inaugurated the NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center, calling it “a new home for the alliance in the Gulf.” The center brings together NATO and Gulf officers through courses focused on security issues such as maritime security and energy infrastructure security, or cybersecurity. The other primary vehicle of NATO policies in the region is the Mediterranean Dialogue, signed in 1994 with Israel and six Arab countries — Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan.
There is now a debate about whether to create a new alliance or to improve these existing structures. Whether an alliance will be formed, and whether it will succeed, are questions that will only be answered in time. However, fostering relations between NATO and the GCC is likely to serve the Gulf states’ interests for the moment.