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Reports of the United Arab Emirates entering into the advanced stages of negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with NATO comes at a time when the region continues to face threats of varying degrees, and the Atlantic alliance looks for a renewed role after celebrating its sixtieth anniversary.
By Mina Al-Oraibi for RUSI.org
The United Arab Emirates' conference with NATO on 29 October shows that it means business in leading the Gulf region's growing relations with the Atlantic alliance. Fewer than three months into his role, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the conference that expanding relations with the region is already one of his top priorities, highlighting the shared interests and threats shared by NATO and the Gulf. They include the dangers of nuclear proliferation, piracy and challenges emanating from failed states, such as Afghanistan or Somalia.
NATO has sought to deepen military ties with all six Gulf Cooperation Council members since grounds for partnership were established by the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative in 2004. So far, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar have accepted the offer of partnership, holding regular consultative meetings with a focus on military training and exchanges.
However, there is a drive now to upgrade these talks to a higher political level based on closer cooperation, specifically in the sharing intelligence. This last goal was met with the UAE's signing of a 'Security of Information' agreement with NATO during the conference. While the details of the agreement are classified, it focuses on the exchange of information and the protection of this information.
This is one further step at solidifying relations between the two actors while discussions continue on finalising a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which is expected to be completed by next summer at the latest. NATO officials stress that this agreement does not mean that NATO troops will be stationed in the Emirates which, unlike neighbouring Gulf States, does not have American troops and bases on its territories. Rather, it lays the legal framework for a NATO troop presence for training purposes and joint military exercises; it is also a legal framework for NATO troops to be deployed to the UAE should their presence be deemed necessary.
Common concerns about Iran
The main threat perceived in the Emirates is undoubtedly from Iran - which currently holds three islands that are claimed by the UAE. A resource-rich yet geographically small and exposed country, the Emirates particularly feels Iran's towering presence in the region. Talks behind closed doors at the recent meeting with NATO officials were often centred on Iran, and not only on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Rather, concerns were voiced on a different type of weapon: Iran's increasing arsenal of ballistic missiles. There is consensus that these missiles not only threaten direct neighbours in the Middle East, but arealso capable of reaching NATO member states. The UAE is looking for reassurances that its security, and that of the region, will be taken into consideration as the P5+1 talks ensue with Iran.
Article V Protection?
However, at a subsequent joint press conference with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Rasmussen appeared coy in answering a question that detailed the sort of cover NATO would provide to partners like the UAE. Rasmussen repeated the regular NATO public mantra that the Alliance's defence, based on Article V of the North Atlantic treaty (an attack on one member is an attack on all), is restricted to member countries. However, in closed meetings, it would appear that NATO gives assurances of support to its partner countries, and that this is a key motivation to signing further security agreements.
Impediments and opportunities for NATO's presence in the Gulf
The Emirates is perhaps, with Jordan, one of the few Middle Eastern countries willing to show a commitment to NATO by supporting operations of the Alliance. It expects assurances of support in return. The UAE has a small presence in Afghanistan, with only approximately twenty-five troops stationed there. Modest as it may be, the presence, as an Arab and Muslim nation, is symbolically important.
Both NATO and the United States are now working to have greater Arab involvement in Afghanistan, militarily and financially. However, this is being met with much opposition. One argument prevalent in the Arab world regarding Afghanistan pertains to the belief that the Arab world is not obliged to support Western military adventures when they turn sour. However, this shorted-sight vision for the region limits the Arab world's capacity to play its proper role in important developments whether in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The leadership of the Emirates, a visionary in the region in many senses, assesses the situation differently. Having participated in international missions including in the Balkans and Afghanistan, the Emirates is strengthening its role on several levels. While the presence of UAE troops in Afghanistan is usually not highlighted for fear of repercussions, Sheikh Abdullah was very vocal about this mission during the NATO Secretary General's visit to Abu Dhabi, and vowed continued support.
However, the main impediment to NATO's presence in the Gulf comes from Saudi Arabia's and Oman's reluctance to sign up to the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Oman has close relations with Iran and does not want to antagonise it, while Saudi Arabia is traditionally conservative in forging military alliances, preferring bilateral ties, particularly its historic relations with the United States.
In strengthening ties with NATO, the UAE is establishing a voice at the table, whether in Brussels or Kabul. Even if the voice is not loud or definitive, it is very much present and growing. As NATO undergoes an extensive review of its Strategic Concept in order to guide its future and its raison d'etre, the Middle East will undoubtedly be discussed and considered. It is here that the Emirates and other cooperating countries can have a role to play in shaping the place of the Gulf in NATO's wider strategy.