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NATO treads carefully in the Middle East

Commentary, 29 March 2009
International Institutions, Middle East and North Africa
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has launched two initiatives that would improve its relationship with countries in the Middle East. Whilst there are undoubtedly common interests on which to build, the public perception of NATO in the region leaves much to be desired. The Alliance must tread carefully if it wishes to build lasting relationships in the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has launched two initiatives that would improve its relationship with countries in the Middle East. Whilst there are undoubtedly common interests on which to build, the public perception of NATO in the region leaves much to be desired. The Alliance must tread carefully if it wishes to build lasting relationships in the region.

By Mina Al-Oraibi for RUSI.org

With the end of the Cold War ushering in NATO’s soul-searching for a raison d’etre beyond the basic mission of keeping the USSR at bay, new tasks were considered both within the Alliance and outside it. One such role was the stabilisation of the Middle East, resulting in two different programmes, the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). The projects deal with two of the most pertinent threats to the Middle East. While the ICI is concerned with the Gulf region and covers Iran, the MD is a body that was initiated as part of a series of schemes built around the Mediterranean in the 1990s to provide a platform for Arab-Israeli interaction and help work towards a common sense of security. Both of these have been based on training and on light-touch military cooperation for which much political capital has been expended.

The Tricky Task of Public Diplomacy

The politics behind NATO’s relations with the Arab world are complicated, to say the least. There are clear points of shared interest. However there are also popular doubts about what NATO’s real ambitions are for the region. NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is vital and has an impact on the Middle East, from Saudi-Pakistani relations to Iran’s role as a regional power. There is no dispute that Afghanistan’s security is crucial for all in the region and the possibility of American-Iranian dialogue around this issue means an easing for tensions for all those concerned. However, the way the operations have been conducted, from the targeting of civilians to the way the ‘Mujahideen’ are now vilified after once being considered as heroes, makes the perception of NATO vulnerable. While a few Arab countries have agreed to participate in ISAF forces, their insistence on keeping that role discreet is but one example of how sensitive the mission is in the Arab world.

NATO will have a difficult task explaining to a concerned Arab audience what its ambitions and objectives are in the region. The public policy line concentrates on stability and cooperation, which, while it is clearly valid, does not counter the arguments that NATO wishes to further the interests of the ‘West’ at the expense of others in the region. More importantly, there is still a wide misperception in the region that NATO is controlled by Washington, despite the unanimity required for the Alliance’s decision-making. The public policy arm of NATO has worked hard at clearing misperceptions in the region – from inviting Arab journalists regularly on press tours to holding conferences in the region itself. Nicola De Santis, Head of Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Countries Section at NATO, insists that his job is ‘to provide information about NATO and then for the people to make up their minds about us’. NATO officials continue to insist that if only they were better understood, they would surely have more support in the region.

NATO and Israel-Palestine

One potential role for NATO that is suggested time and again is for an assignment to the Palestinian territories – or at least to monitoring the borders between Palestine and Israel. On the record, NATO officials have always distanced themselves from this idea; with the official policy line being that the idea would only be considered after a peace settlement is reached by with two sides and both made a request for the help of NATO troops. Time and again, they insist that even at that point the idea would only be discussed and not necessarily accepted. However, behind the scenes, this issue is in fact discussed and considered. NATO must be realistic in its ambitions in the region and not be seen to supplant the United Nations and its peace-keeping missions. NATO’s wariness about acting without a UN resolution is important, a gesture of support for the international body. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, assured Arabs that ‘We do not want to be a global policeman, that is not and should not be NATO’s ambition, or to compete with the United Nations. We are working both in the interest of, and indeed closely with, the rest of the international community’.

There have been marginal voices in Israel, Europe and the United States who have in the past raised the possibility of Israel joining the Transatlantic Alliance. This has alarmed many Arabs and NATO officials have consistently assured them that being a partner through the MD or ICI is not a step towards membership. This remains to be a cause for concern amongst those not well briefed on NATO.

Potential for Cooperation

While the Palestinian-Israeli situation is the most high-profile security issue in the region, there are many other intersections for NATO and Middle East interests. Fighting piracy off the Gulf of Aden is one of the most recent instances of cooperation, while NATO’s role in Iraq is an example of a non-intrusive and mutually beneficial relationship with the region. While the training programme at the Rustumiya Academy is limited, it was an important contribution to the development of Iraqi forces. Moreover, it opens the door for future cooperation with Iraq after the deep divisions which occurred in NATO six years ago over the 2003 war.

Collective security interests for the United States, Canada and Europe undoubtedly include the Middle East. Developing the ties between the two regions has accelerated in the past decade – with the current Secretary General of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer being the first Secretary General to visit quite a few of the countries of the region.

As NATO celebrates it sixtieth birthday and plans how it will reach its centenary, the Middle East will be one of the higher priorities for the Alliance. However, it must tread carefully in the region, acting delicately in matters of politics and particularly in matters of military intervention.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a journalist for Asharq Al-Awsat, the international pan-Arab daily.

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