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NATO's Missed Chance to Forge New Middle East Ties

Senior Fellow
Leaders of member states of NATO line up for a group photograph on June 29, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Leaders of member states of NATO line up for a group photograph on June 29, 2022, in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

One aspect of the recent NATO summit in Madrid that received less attention than it deserved was the publication of the new Strategic Concept, the policy guide for the Western alliance’s leaders into the future. The last one was published in 2010 and was woefully out of date.

With the focus of NATO's leaders and policymakers concentrated on central and eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia, there is a risk that other regions of the world that are important to the alliance might be overlooked. One of these regions is the Middle East and North Africa.

Whether it is regional terrorism emanating from extremist groups or the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, NATO members share many of the same security concerns as the countries of the MENA region. Furthermore, many of the countries in this region have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with NATO and have even contributed troops to NATO-led missions in the past. The alliance should be finding ways to build on these relationships.

Regrettably, there was barely any attention given to the MENA region in the newly published Strategic Concept. In fact, in a document that is just over 4,200 words long, only one paragraph of about 80 words was devoted to the MENA region. Furthermore, NATO’s two main platforms on which it engages with the MENA region, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul cooperation initiative, were not mentioned at all.

The former, launched in 1994, forms the basis of NATO’s relations with its Mediterranean partners: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Although talks generally take place on a bilateral basis, between NATO and a single Mediterranean partner (NATO+1), on occasion the forum meets as NATO+7, placing Israel at the same table as some of its regional neighbors, where it would otherwise not be.

The Istanbul initiative, launched in 2004, is the basis of NATO’s relations with the Gulf states. Although all six members of the GCC were invited to join, only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have done so.

While the main effort of the Alliance must remain on the threats in eastern Europe, there are a few easy things that NATO can do to enhance its engagement in the MENA region.

First, NATO should appoint a special representative for the MENA region, where personal relationships are paramount. It should appoint a highly respected diplomat with knowledge of the region to be an enduring point of contact between the alliance and the region.

Second, NATO should actively push to enlarge the memberships of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul initiative. In particular, it should include countries where US and European blood and treasure have been invested, such as Iraq and Libya. The more cooperation, the better. With the success of the Abraham Accords, NATO should also explore ways to bring Israel and Arab states together for more training exercises and security cooperation.

Finally, neither the Mediterranean Dialogue nor the Istanbul initiative has formally met during a NATO summit at the heads of government level. It was announced in Madrid that NATO will hold another summit next year. When this happens, NATO should include high-level meetings for both the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul initiative. This would send a strong message that NATO appreciates the geopolitical importance of the MENA region.

Even with all the challenges posed by Russia, NATO’s lack of focus on the MENA region is puzzling. According to the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the alliance’s area of focus is “the North Atlantic area, north of the Tropic of Cancer.” Every country generally considered to be in the MENA region, minus Yemen, has territory north of the Tropic of Cancer — and therefore is in NATO’s area of focus.

Furthermore, history and recent events show that what happens in the region can quickly spill over into Europe. Closer ties between NATO and the MENA region will make everyone safer and more secure. In many ways, the lack of attention paid to the MENA region in the Strategic Concept was a missed opportunity.

As NATO starts preparing for its next summit in 2023, policymakers must take appropriate steps now to get the MENA region on to the agenda.

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