Under the heading of “Cooperation within the Framework of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative,” the Gulf Research Center, the Institute of Diplomatic Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia, and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division brought together policy officials, defense specialists and academics in a one-day symposium on the relationship between NATO and the GCC countries.
In his opening address, H.R.H. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, underlined the fact that the Middle East represents the most unstable region in the world due to such unresolved situations as the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. In this regard, it is important to bring about international cooperation to create greater stability in the region. Prince Saud stated that the end of the Cold War provided a period of hope where standards of international legitimacy would prevail. NATO falls under sense of optimism and as such the kingdom is watching closely the development and contribution that NATO could make towards regional security and stability. While he indicated that the importance of the workshop was to increase the understanding of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) of NATO, he also said that the kingdom would study NATO’s proposal for Saudi Arabia to join the initiative.
Following the Foreign Minister’s address, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo stated that his presence in Riyadh was a symbol of the new NATO and the reflection of a new international environment where countries of different backgrounds could come together to discuss issues of common concern. The meeting was thus seen as a welcome opportunity to discuss the rationale of cooperation and focus on the possibilities of greater cooperation. The Deputy Secretary-General stressed that NATO had become a global force with activities stretching from Kosovo to the Mediterranean, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Darfur. With its several missions and their success, NATO had shown that it can bring the international community together.
As far as Saudi Arabia was concerned, Rizzo underlined the importance of the kingdom to the stability of the region and clearly stated that NATO would very much value Saudi Arabia’s participation in the ICI. He emphasized that the ICI was about enhancing mutual understanding, increasing transparency and engaging in areas of mutual cooperation, and as such it would be in the kingdom’s interest to look more closely at the potential benefits that NATO could provide. The Deputy Secretary-General also said that the participation of many key officials from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC states in the meeting was certainly a positive sign.
Following the two key speeches, the conference moved to a roundtable format with short presentations followed by open debate. Within this framework, the two initial questions on which participants focused were the nature of NATO as an organization today and, more specifically, the benefits that cooperation with NATO would bring to the GCC states. With its expanded membership and new missions, it was asked whether it was still possible to characterize NATO simply as a defense alliance or instead one would need to consider NATO as a new international police force. In response, it was pointed out that NATO is a political and military organization that primarily uses diplomacy but backed by military force. Furthermore, NATO had adapted to meet new concerns and challenges and seeks to develop partnerships within which shared interests can be brought together.
On the question of what exactly NATO can provide the GCC states, the opinion among participants was more divided. NATO officials continually stressed that the ICI was about progressive cooperation, that what was being offered was the same type of cooperation as available to the countries engaged in the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD), and that the GCC states were free to decide whether they saw it as being in their interests to pursue cooperation or not. There would be no imposition except in agreement.
At the same time, it was made clear what NATO is not. For example, the GCC states should not expect NATO to provide military protection within the ICI framework as the ICI does not offer a security guarantee. NATO can also not be viewed as the answer to all the security challenges with which the Gulf region finds itself confronted. Moreover, NATO does not seek and should not be seen as a replacement for other existing treaty relationships. It plays a complementary and not a substitute role.