Nato set to celebrate 15th anniversary of Istanbul Co-operation Initiative

Alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg will address meeting alongside Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah

epa08057693 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a joint press conference with European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell (unseen), ahead of a meeting at the building of the European External Action Service (EEAS), in Brussels, Belgium, 09 December 2019.  EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
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Nato is set to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative, the framework that affords the UAE and other Gulf countries security ties with the biggest military alliance, at a ceremony in Kuwait on Monday.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will address the meeting alongside Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah.

The four members of the initiative – the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar – will all be in attendance at the Nato-ICI Regional Centre in Kuwait City, which was inaugurated two years ago.

A symbolic ceremony will be followed by a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, with all 29 member states present.

Joining them will be the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative members and North Macedonia, which is expected to become the alliance’s 30th member next year.

The meeting will give members of the initiative a chance to evaluate what co-operation has allowed them to achieve in the past 15 years, and consider in which arenas they want to expand, Nato spokesman Piers Cazalet told The National.

“The purpose of the meeting our Gulf partners is to take stock of progress made within the framework of the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative and to discuss our common way forward to make our partners even more efficient,” Mr Cazalet said.

“A lot has been achieved so far. We have conducted a wide range of practical activities, including military training and education, crisis management, and dealing with natural and man-made disasters.”

Saudi Arabia and Oman, who have yet to accept the offer extended by Nato to all Gulf countries in 2004, will also be represented.

Oman has sought to retain its independence from international organisations as a key regional mediator.

Saudi Arabia already has strong ties with the US and Britain, two of Nato’s biggest contributors, and has not fully signed up to the alliance, although discussions are continuing.

It will also bring together Qatar and other Gulf states once more after the diplomatic fallout of June 2017, when the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia cut transport and trade ties with Doha over its support for extremist groups.

While Qatar still participates in Istanbul Co-operation Initiative meetings, officials say its representatives have been less frank and less substantive since the crisis broke out.

Kuwait has remained in contact with both sides of the dispute and the Gulf state’s choice as the venue for the ceremony may have helped all parties to attend.

It also comes less than two weeks after a Nato summit in London where allies became embroiled in rows despite an agreed statement of unity.

World leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, were captured on camera mocking US President Donald Trump.

But Nato officials in Kuwait continue to repeat the message carried at the summit in Brussels last year: we are united despite our divisions.

“At our recent meeting in London, our leaders reaffirmed that Nato is a defensive alliance and poses no threat to any country," Mr Cazalet said.

"We work to increase security for all. In this respect we have strengthened partnerships in our neighbourhood and beyond."

Recent disagreements in Nato are not new. Transatlantic allies have clashed before within the alliance, particularly over the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the US.

The Kuwait City centre for the initiative has “played a very important role in furthering our co-operation with the Gulf countries”, Mr Stoltenberg told the Kuwaiti Kuna news agency before the ceremony.

“I welcome Kuwait’s long-standing efforts to contribute to regional stability, including through the Nato Istanbul Co-operation Initiative.

“The security of our ICI partners is of strategic importance to Nato. Through the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative, we have a unique platform where we discuss security issues of common concern.”

Officials say Monday’s meeting will focus on areas on which all members can do more, specifically inter-operability, counter-terrorism, cyber defence, civil emergency planning and energy security.

Nato’s regional centre in Kuwait, which Mr Stoltenberg referred to as “Nato’s home in the Gulf” when he inaugurated the building in 2017, has hosted more than 1,000 officers and experts from the Gulf members of the initiative, and from Nato member countries in joint training and co-operation exercises.

Kuwait funded the centre and volunteered to host this year’s ceremony.