Nato says Saudi and Omani attendance at anniversary celebration ‘good sign’ of progress

Official says alliance is looking to expand partnerships and all eyes in Brussels are on Riyadh and Muscat

Handout photo released by Kuna on December 16, 2019 shows the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (R) meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City.  === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / KUNA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
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Nato views Saudi Arabia and Oman’s participation in the 15th anniversary celebration of the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative as progress towards the two Gulf countries joining the framework that ensures stronger security co-operation between the alliance and Gulf states.

The alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was to deliver a speech at the ceremony held in Kuwait City’s Nato-ICI Regional Centre, where alliance and Gulf officers and experts train and work together.

That was to be followed by a meeting of the North Atlantic Council with all 29 member states, the four initiative members — the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar — and Saudi Arabia and Oman present. Top of the agenda was the development of the initiative and its potential expansion to incorporate Riyadh and Muscat.

"It's a good sign," a Nato official told The National. "Nato wants to expand its partnerships. If other countries wanted to join the ICI, I think Nato members would look on that positively."

Oman has refrained from joining the initiative in a bid to maintain its independence from multilateral military institutions, while Saudi Arabia already has significant military weight and bilateral ties with the majority of Nato’s largest members, particularly the United States.

All members participate in the initiative on a bilateral basis with Nato. It has allowed Emirati troops to assist the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan and Emirati air assets to be used in Libya.

If the two were to join it would mean that all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council would be involved and sitting around the table together, adding serious weight to the alliance’s strategic vision for the Gulf, which is to essentially to ensure that Gulf states are up to speed with the alliance on tackling shared threats.

The official outlined why it would be in Saudi Arabia and Oman’s interests to join the initiative that was launched in 2004 to boost co-operation on issues from disaster management to counter-terrorism.

“The value of these partnerships is that our militaries can work together, our politicians can talk together,” he said.

The Kuwaiti centre is one of Nato’s primary hubs outside of its headquarters in Brussels, a building that Mr Stoltenberg has described as the alliance’s home in the Gulf.

The centre has made “a big difference” and allowed the alliance “to make our partnerships concrete” in the Gulf since its launch in 2017, the official said. Nato has about 40 partners outside of the alliance’s main members around the world, but its Kuwaiti centre is one of its foremost commitments to a region outside of the trans-Atlantic area.