Dr. Legrenzi is a lecturer and manager of the Middle East Program at Cranfield University, the UK Defense Academy.1
This article explores the current and future role of NATO in enacting Security Sector Reform (SSR) in the Gulf through the three-year-old Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The article is grounded in recent scholarship on military reform, democratization and collective security. Enough time has elapsed since the inauguration of the initiative that an initial balance sheet can be drawn. The article aims at starting to fill the gap between theoretical literature elaborated by authors who have focused on other regions of the world and the reality of SSR experiments in the Gulf and the Broader Middle East. Further, from a policy point of view, it explores the possibility of NATO’s playing a role in any field of SSR in the Gulf and the Broader Middle East. The main argument is that the new initiative is bound to lay bare a significant gap between policy commitment and actual implementation for a host of political, military and historical reasons.
THE ISTANBUL COOPERATION INITIATIVE
On June 29, 2004, NATO announced at its summit in Istanbul a new initiative relating to the Middle East region, with aninitial focus on the six countries of the Arabian peninsula that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), NATO aims to offer a rich menu of options for training and collaboration on topics ranging from counterterrorism to greater transparency in defense budgeting and decision making.2 The new partnership project is explicitly modeled after the Partnership for Peace (PfP) aimed at countries that were former members of the Warsaw Pact, which was implemented during the 1990s.3 The other example held forth is the thirteen-year-old Mediterranean Dialogue (MD). So far, four GCC states — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE — have officially adhered to the initiative. Saudi Arabia, the biggest GCC country, is currently being courted by NATO, as recently indicated by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo during a meeting with Gulf Arab states in the Saudi capital on January 22, 2007: “I do want to stress here today that NATO would very much value the participation of Saudi Arabia.”4
NATO is certainly driven by the postCold War need to define new missions for the alliance. Building on its work with the former Soviet states, NATO has become more confident about its ability to offer practical security assistance to countries beyond the European land mass. The old confinement of operations to “north of the Tropic of Cancer,” always tenuous at best, has now completely vanished with the alliance conducting a major operation in Afghanistan and mooting a possible logistical role in Sudan. This is in addition to the crucial role being played in the Balkans, an area of operation more congruous with its historical mission.5
The PfP, which involved former members of the Warsaw Pact, did indeed yield some excellent results. Member countries undertook a specific set of political pledges, such as commitment to the rule of law and a democratic framework. In particular, they make specific commitments closer to areas of traditional NATO concern such as transparency in national-defense planning and budgeting. The set of practical measures included in the bilateral individual partnership programs ranges from securing weapon stockpiles to anti-mine activities, touching on fields such as air defense and naval exercises. The ultimate aim is to promote the development of effective defense institutions that are under civilian and democratic control and are capable of cooperating with NATO forces if the need arises.
It is highly doubtful, however, whether NATO experience in Eastern Europe will prove a useful guide in building a partnership with the GCC countries. The approach taken so far by NATO officials in charge of the initiative makes a brave assumption, namely that these countries are eager to jettison the legacy of the past and are in favor of modernizing their security apparatuses along Western lines in the near term. However, the rulers of the GCC states adhere to an extremely gradual model of reform that is dictated endogenously. The idea that this change can be dictated, or even strongly supported, from the outside is perceived as very problematic.6 The premise of NATO officials is that this is a demand-driven process. However, it should be investigated whether the four GCC countries that have accepted the initiative so far are, in fact, thinking that they are accepting an offer that they cannot refuse in the current political climate, in particular as a result of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), lately often referred to as the Long War.
Furthermore, the fact that political reform could in fact “spill over” from SSR is even more remote. In fact, it is likely that the security sector, widely considered in the region and elsewhere as a defining feature of sovereignty, will be the last to be put up for reform. This does not mean that there is not a big role for outsiders to play. The British played a crucial role in setting up the security sectors in Oman and Bahrain; the United States had a vital role in assisting Saudi Arabia in the organization of its defense. At a more tactical level, it may be enough to mention the group of hastily converted French commandos who helped to organize the raid of the Great Mosque of Mecca after it was seized on November 20, 1979, by several hundred militants led by Juhayman al-Utaybi.7 In the past, though, this collaboration has been conducted as discreetly as possible. The new NATO initiative, with its strong public diplomacy component, marks a sharp discontinuity with previous Western security initiatives in the Gulf and is in contradiction with the current CENTCOM policy of having as small a “footprint” in the area as possible. The consequences of such an approach ought to be thoroughly investigated. Instead, the dominant attitude within NATO seems to be omnia munda mundis: i.e., since our intentions are good, there is nothing to worry about, and we should actively propagandize our newfound role in the region.8
PROFESSIONAL ARMIES FOR THE GCC?
At an even broader level, it is very doubtful that it would make sense for the GCC states to create efficient armies capable of cooperating fully with NATO to face a variety of threats. The risks that the GCC regimes would incur in setting up effective standing armies clearly outweigh the benefits that could be gained in military efficiency. The traditional separation between regular army and “national guard” and other separate units, such as tribal levies, whose most conspicuous examples can be found in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is bound to endure. GCC officials often pride themselves on working for states that are among the few regimes that have been "revolution-free" in Eurasia in the last 70 years. They are absolutely correct. It is important to note, though, that this result has been achieved by carefully managing the security sector so that it will not pose a threat to the ruling regime.
An overview of the history of the Arab Middle East in the last 50 years demonstrates that monarchical regimes have many reasons to fear professional armies.9 An interesting exception is Jordan, where the monarch successfully blended tribal elements in his military establishment while preserving a good degree of operational efficiency. However, a close look at how this was achieved demonstrates that few of the elements of that experience are replicable in GCC states. King Hussein took utmost care all his life to nurture his ties with the military establishment, chiefly drawn from Trans-Jordanian elements of society. 10 Unlike its GCC counterparts, the Jordanian army never had to rely on rank-and-file soldiers drawn from abroad, even if it benefited greatly from the leadership of British officers in the first 30 years of its life. On the contrary, to this very day, GCC armies include a percentage of Pakistani and other foreign soldiers. This makes the Jordanian army a much more versatile instrument than most of its GCC counterparts.11 Furthermore, King Hussein always styled himself a soldier and maintained the closest possible relationship with the military. In the Gulf, this may be said of Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed and Sultan Qaboos, but not of the other rulers.12
EASTERN EUROPE NOT AN APT PRECEDENT
The ultimate objective of SSR is often defined as being the creation of armed, uniformed forces and security services that are functionally differentiated professional forces under objective and subjective civilian control at the lowest functional level of resources.13 If we take these criteria as benchmarks, it is immediately apparent how far we are from such a situation in all GCC states. In fact, it would be very difficult to retain objective and subjective civilian control while building up professional forces capable of integrating seamlessly with NATO assets. Furthermore, the idea that this can be achieved “at the lowest functional level of resources” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives the procurement policies of most GCC states. Procurement in GCC states is as much a foreign-policy tool as it is an instrument of defense policy.
CURRENT GCC SECURITY SECTOR
Judging from the remarks of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and other senior NATO officials, the ICI is driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the rationale behind the current organizational structure of GCC armed forces and security services.14 This is a misunderstanding that GCC government officials have an interest in fostering as they strive to appear keen on participating in these reform initiatives while prolonging indefinitely the dialogue with NATO. In fact, it would be curious if GCC officials were to internalize the strong normative component inherent in the NATO initiative. The case of Ukraine, currently involved in a bilateral partnership program, is explicitly heralded by NATO officials as a successful precedent for NATO-inspired SSR reform.
However, that example elucidates the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of this latest initiative. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Ukrainians were ready to jettison a legacy of totalitarianism. The defense sector, in particular, had to be reinvented from scratch after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This process was greatly aided by the eventual prize of NATO membership, something that is explicitly not on offer to GCC states.15 In fact, it is difficult to fathom why these Gulf states should yearn for radical reform. Gulf rulers ought to be quite satisfied with the way they have managed their countries in such a turbulent region since independence. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has a long independent history and rightly values its bilateral defense ties with the United States. For example, the Saudi National Guard has been trained by the Vinnell Corporation since 1975.16 In terms of external security, it is not clear what a multilateral umbrella could add to the package apart from all the chicanery and tortuousness in decision making that are now patently clear in the case of Afghanistan. As for SSR, Gulf countries quite simply do not have a domestic incentive to change; current arrangements have proved their worth throughout the last few decades.
It is not a coincidence that NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue, which was initiated in 1994, has dragged on for more than ten years with few tangible results. It is noteworthy that the seven partner countries involved in this dialogue — Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia — are generally considered better candidates for SSR than the four GCC countries involved in the ICI. The GCC regimes take comfort in this lack of genuine results; they speculate that the initiative will be kept at the level of an interesting dialogue without the need to enact reforms that would be costly in political capital. For example, there are very good reasons why defense budgeting, the transparency of which is one of the avowed objectives of the ICI initiative, is opaque in GCC states. It provides one of the main sources of patronage for influential members of the royal families. More specifically, “commissions” for cabinet members brokering the deals are significant.17 Another good reason for the acquisition of very sophisticated weapons systems that do not seem to be operable in any given scenario is that this constitutes a sort of insurance policy underwritten by major Western powers. There is, therefore, an expectation gap between NATO officials and representatives of the four ICI countries with regard to the final goal of the initiative. This aspect ought to be investigated before considerable resources are devoted to the program.
Furthermore, the initiative risks precipitating some moderately negative consequences at the domestic political level. We have seen how, in the case of Mauritania, which incidentally is located more than 1,000 kilometers from the Mediterranean shores, the issue of NATO membership has turned into a domestic political football. The government utilized it to claim that it was acting with the implicit approval of the “powers that be,” chiefly the United States; and the opposition denounces membership in the Mediterranean Dialogue as a sign that governing forces are subservient to the United States. The issue has acquired symbolic significance; it is at the center of bitter contestation between government and opposition.18 Of course, the similarities should not be overemphasized, but it is easy to see how the Islamist opposition in GCC countries, far more effective than its liberal counterparts, would quickly move to exploit the situation. It is noteworthy that in the case of Jordan, there has clearly been no distinction drawn between NATO and the United States at the level of public opinion. NATO is associated with the United States in all its good and bad aspects. It is therefore puzzling that the ICI explicitly incorporates a strong public-diplomacy component.19 If there is something that NATO can contribute — a fairly doubtful proposition in itself— it would be better provided in a very low-key manner.
When asked directly, NATO military leaders quickly acknowledge the limited military value of the whole enterprise. A leading NATO rear admiral, discussing the issue under Chatham House rules (which do not allow his remarks to be directly attributed to him), had this to say about the ICI: “It is a political initiative, there is no gain in military terms,” further adding, “It was very difficult to integrate even a single Russian ship in Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean, but the political significance of a Russian ship showing the flag in Naples is huge.” Finally, he concluded, “Of course we cannot operate, let alone integrate, with the Kuwaiti or the Emirate navy. However, the Gulf is a hot point, and NATO feels it is important to be there and to demonstrate a new willingness to operate out of area….I feel that the North of the Tropic of Cancer limitations are now irrelevant.”20 This particular set of remarks is just an explicit rendition of a sentiment that is very widespread in the military wing of the alliance. NATO’s ICI is seen as something that will be relevant in political terms even if militarily it will not make much of a difference. Therefore, one is led to believe that the entire initiative has much less to do with actual concern for the state of the security sector in the GCC states and a lot more with the need to find a new role for the alliance. However, it appears as if NATO already has its hands full as it tries to win a decisive victory in Afghanistan. After regime change in Iraq and recent upheavals in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, GCC states are among the few stable allies the United States can count on in the Arab Middle East. The new ICI will certainly not yield any significant advantage to either NATO or the GCC states. More worryingly, it has the potential of upsetting the fairly robust domestic political balances in these countries.
In fact, the initial requests lodged by the four participating Gulf countries demonstrate the hollowness of the initiative even from a technical point of view. The four countries have requested border surveillance and assistance in setting up domestic security operations; this was indeed one of the fields specifically mentioned by the ICI policy document.
These requests mirror the ones made by Jordan in the context of its bilateral relations with NATO. However, these are fields in which NATO has little to offer the new partners.
The NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative is certainly mostly representational in nature. Military officers are very skeptical of any eventual synergies emanating from it. It is likely to result in a deliberate gap between halfhearted policy commitments and their poor implementation on the part of GCC states. The results of the Mediterranean Dialogue after 13 years, in terms of military integration and interoperability, testify to the mostly symbolic nature of these partnerships. The initiative could indeed yield symbolic results. However, most probably these will work in the opposite direction to the ones intended by the promoters of the initiative.
In particular, Gulf governments taking part in the initiative will be perceived by the public as even more tied to the United States than they already are. The idea that a multilateral umbrella will in some way efface current perceptions of dependency is misplaced. The case of Jordan is there for all to see.
The ICI is unlikely to contribute significantly to the enhancement of Gulf security. In a hypothetical military confrontation with Iran, there would certainly not be a consultation at the NATO level to decide how to move forward to organize the defense of GCC states. These decisions will be taken by American officials in bilateral consultation with GCC governments, as has been done in the past.
NATO and the United States are in any case likely to be conflated in the perception of most people in the Gulf, as has already been the case with Jordan.
Furthermore, the ICI is unlikely to spur a wave of security-sector reform in GCC countries. The rulers of these states know what is in their best interest when organizing the security sectors of their countries. The attitude of NATO officials, who are acting in good faith, is naïve and can at times be categorized as patronizing. The comparison with the successful Partnership for Peace in the Warsaw pact states is misleading at best, given the completely different economic, social and political context.
1 The original idea for this article stemmed from a workshop on Security Sector Reform in the Gulf held at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC. The author would like to thank all the participants, in particular Ellen Laipson and Emile El-Hokayem. The report of the workshop, which is slightly more optimistic about the prospect of the NATO enterprise, can be found at http://www.stimson.org/pub.cfm?id=323 (accessed January 2007).
2 For the June 28, 2004, text of the policy initiative, see “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative” at http:// www.nato.int/docu/comm/2004/06-istanbul/docu-cooperation.htm (accessed January 2007). Please note in particular the constant reference to the Partnership for Peace program as an antecedent.
3 A brief outline of the PfP program can be found at http://www.nato.int/issues/pfp/index.html. The initiative was also extended to countries that were neutral during the Cold War such as Switzerland and Sweden, the complete list is available at http://www.nato.int/pfp/sig-cntr.htm.
4 Reuters, January 22, 2007.
5 For a list of all NATO commitments as well as the most up-to-date enunciation of the ICI objectives, see the speech by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the NATO-Kuwait Public Diplomacy Conference on 12 December 2006 at http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/2006/s061212a.htm (accessed January 2007).
6 Among many contributions on the subject, see for example Larbi Sadiki, The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourse (Columbia University Press, 2002).
7 For a very interesting account of the episode see the article by Olivier Da Lage published in “Le Monde” 20-21, Nov. 1994, based among other sources on an interview conducted in 1984 with Captain Barril, the head of the French commandos who were in Mecca in November 1979. Available at: http://mapage.noos.fr/odalage/ monde/mosquee.html (accessed January 2007).
8 A number of public gatherings have been organized so far in the Gulf to publicize the ICI with policy makers and elites.
9 Monarchical regimes were overthrown by army coups in Libya, Egypt and Iraq, and the army played a crucial role in the political developments of Algeria, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.
10 For a good treatment of the almost symbiotic relationship between the Hashemite Royal family and the military in Jordan, see the relevant chapter in Joseph Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, (Columbia University Press, 2002). For a more mainstream account of the origins of the relationship, see P.J. Vatikiotis, Politics and the Military in Jordan: A Study of the Arab Legion, 1921-1957 (London : Cass, 1967).
11 For a classical overview of how Arab armies operate, see Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
12 I thank my friend Steffen Hertog for this particular insight.
13 See UK Department for International Development, Bryden, Alan & Heiner Hanggi, Understanding and Supporting Security Sector Reform. (London, UK Dept. for International Development, undated). See also the website of the Centre for Security Sector Management (CSSM) at http://ssronline.org for a wealth of related material.
14 See the proceedings of “NATO’s Evolving Role in the Middle East: The Gulf Dimension” held at the Stimson Center, Washington, DC, on June 3, 2005, in particular the speech of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer available at: http://www.stimson.org/swa/?SN=SW20050608841 (accessed January 2007). 15 See the June 28, 2004, text of the “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.” Eventual NATO membership has been explicitly ruled out by NATO North Atlantic Council, the highest political body within the alliance.
16 For a proud history of this “precedent setting” project, see the company website at http:// www.vinnell.com/ (accessed January 2007).
17 See, for example, the latest controversy regarding the Al-Yamamah (The Dove) arms deal. This is one of the few cases in which the specific amount of “commissions” (around £.5.2 million per Tornado plane) has become public because of a clerical error at the British Ministry of Defense. See http:// politics.guardian.co.uk/foi/story/0,,1933764,00.html (accessed January 2007). The subsequent decision to call off a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) prosecution, followed by the Saudi decision to renew the multi-billion pounds deal, has given rise to a spirited debate in Britain. It was followed by a formal OECD reproach for having contravened an Anti-Bribery Convention that had been signed in the United Kingdom. See http:// news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6275199.stm (accessed January 2007). Indeed, as a former Conservative minister, Ian Gilmour, promptly remarked, “You either got the business and bribed, or you didn't bribe and didn’t get the business.…” It is highly questionable whether the word “bribe” is appropriate given the institutional framework of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities were fully behind the deal. However, the sheer amount of hypocrisy surrounding the whole episode makes it interesting.
18 See Cédric Jourde, “Constructing Representations of the Global War on Terror in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania,” in Journal of Contemporary African Studies, May 2007.
19 See for example “NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative” available at http:// www.nato.int/med-dial/qa.htm or recent speeches by Nicola De Santis, who is the NATO official in charge of the ICI public diplomacy component.
20 Remarks delivered in November 2006.