Security experts offer a road map for NATO’s future in MENA region

NATO's headquarters in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
NATO's headquarters in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 11 May 2021

Security experts offer a road map for NATO’s future in MENA region

Security experts offer a road map for NATO’s future in MENA region
  • Arab News Research & Studies webinar examined how the military alliance can better engage with its partners in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Expert says NATO should appoint a special representative and enlarge the Mediterranean Dialogue as well as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative

DUBAI: In the 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which heralded the start of the post-Cold War era, there has been much discussion about what role NATO ought to play in the world. How might it adapt to new and evolving challenges emanating from regions beyond its traditional geographic remit, particularly the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

Although Article 6 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the organization’s founding document, defines its area of responsibility as “the North Atlantic region north of the Tropic of Cancer,” a new report from the Arab News Research & Studies unit aims to highlight why the MENA region is important to NATO, what common interests they share, and how the organization might better engage with the region.

“While not strictly part of its area of responsibility, NATO cannot ignore the MENA region,” writes Luke Coffey, the report’s author and director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, in the document’s introduction. “Historical and recent events show that what happens there can quickly spill over into Europe.”

Coffey highlights several sources of instability emanating from the region, which stretches from the eastern Atlantic Ocean through North Africa and on to the Middle East. These include demographic pressures, increased commodity prices, interstate and intrastate conflicts and tribal politics.

“A decade after the start of the so-called Arab Spring, many geopolitical challenges remain in the region, from the rise of transnational terrorism to the nuclear threat and state-sponsored terrorism from Iran. Many in NATO therefore have rightly decided to place a renewed focus on working with regional partners on the southern periphery of the alliance.”

Competition over water and other natural resources, religious tensions, revolutionary tendencies, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and proxy wars involving regional and global actors offer further cause for concern at NATO HQ.

And because the region contains some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes, energy resources and trade choke points, seemingly minor conflicts and disasters have been shown to have major ripple effects on global trade, oil prices and distant economies.




The alliance will need to adapt its relationship with MENA states (below) beyond matters of defense to areas like trade, according to Iulia-Sabina Joja. (AFP)

“NATO has gone through many such debates about what its purpose is,” Coffey said at an Arab News Research & Studies Briefing Room webinar conducted on Monday to launch the report.

“There’s been talk about focusing NATO on counterterrorism, there’s been a debate about China, there has been debate about Russia remaining the big threat. Personally, I’m more of a traditionalist on this.

“I do believe that NATO was created and designed to, where necessary, defeat Russia and deter it from aggression. However, I do also understand that there are other challenges that the alliance must deal with.”

Yet, as Coffey points out, NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept, which was intended to serve as a guide for dealing with future challenges, includes barely any mention of the MENA region and these shared challenges.

Coffey believes the document is woefully out of date following the seismic events of the past decade, including the rise of China, a more assertive Russia, the Arab Spring, the conflict with Daesh, the ongoing war in Syria, the European migrant crisis and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

As NATO prepares to draft its new Strategic Concept, Coffey argues now is the time for the organization to build on its existing partnerships with MENA states and search for new ways to cooperate.

If NATO were to follow Coffey’s advice, it is likely to find a receptive audience. According to him, not only do MENA governments share many of the security concerns of NATO member states, some of them have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate, even to the point of contributing troops to NATO-led missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya.




Iulia-Sabina Joja and Luke Coffey joined Tarek Ali Ahmad for a discussion on NATO's future in the MENA region. 

In particular, Coffey highlights NATO’s training operation in Iraq, the NATO-led Operation Ocean Shield to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, and the NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Libya as part of its Operation Unified Protector in 2011.

NATO has already established ties in the region under the umbrellas of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Launched in 1994, the Mediterranean Dialogue forms the basis of NATO’s relations with its Mediterranean partners Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, meanwhile, which was launched in 2004, currently forms the basis of NATO’s relations with Arab Gulf states. Although all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council were invited to join, only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have done so. Saudi Arabia and Oman have expressed only a passing interest in joining.

“To me, the report highlights the newness and fragility of NATO-MENA relations,” Iulia-Sabina Joja, a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Initiative and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said during Monday’s Arab News Research & Studies webinar.

Although there has been some institutional reluctance to participate, including Tunisia’s rejection in 2018 of a NATO proposal to station personnel at a planned military operations center in Gabes, Joja said there have been several positive engagements at a practical level that bode well for future cooperation.

“Reluctance or willingness among individual NATO member states, their visions when it comes to MENA, with different actors and increasingly shared areas of cooperation and threat assessments, show it is not necessarily valid anymore to artificially separate the issues that Europe or the transatlantic community address from the issues that MENA region countries are to address,” she said. “There is a lot of common ground there.”

Joja said the relationship between NATO and MENA ought to extend beyond security and defense, and be built around “tiered cooperation” on specific issues such as trade, the economy and humanitarian intervention.

Coffey’s report sets out some practical steps that NATO can take to improve its relations with the region, including the appointment of a special representative for MENA — a step that would carry weight in a part of the world “where personal relationships are paramount.”

NATO should also push to expand membership of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, he argues. To encourage this, the alliance should establish a Mediterranean Dialogue Regional Center, modeled on the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center in Kuwait.

Finally, to build confidence and a sense of shared mission, NATO should emphasize the geopolitical importance of the MENA region by including high-level meetings for both groupings at the next alliance summit.

Indeed, one of the main issues preventing closer ties is the ongoing reluctance among some states that are mistrustful of NATO’s aims.

“This isn’t about NATO expanding an empire. This isn’t about NATO trying to plan its next military intervention anywhere,” Coffey said during the webinar. “This is about identifying a key region to NATO’s stability and security, and finding willing and like-minded partners that are willing to cooperate and work together to achieve common goals and common results.

“As NATO goes through this process of deepening its relationships with certain countries in North Africa and the Middle East, it must be mindful of sensitivities and it should only go at the pace that the particular country desires to.

“Interoperability brings trust and trust builds relationships. And that will keep us all safer.”


New Israeli government faces tension with Palestinians over Jerusalem

New Israeli government faces tension with Palestinians over Jerusalem
Updated 9 min 27 sec ago

New Israeli government faces tension with Palestinians over Jerusalem

New Israeli government faces tension with Palestinians over Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem march by Jewish nationalists poses immediate challenge to the new coalition

JERUSALEM: Veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu handed over power in Israel on Monday to new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett but remained defiant as the patchwork government faced tensions with Palestinians over a planned Jewish nationalist march.
Minutes after meeting Bennett, Netanyahu repeated a pledge to topple the new government approved on Sunday by a 60-59 vote in parliament.
“It will happen sooner than you think,” Netanyahu, 71, who spent a record 12 straight years in office, said in public remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party.
Formation of the alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties, with little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, capped coalition-building efforts after a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth poll in two years.
Instead of the traditional toasts marking Bennett’s entry into the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu held a low-key meeting there with the former defense chief, who heads the nationalist Yamina party, to brief him on government business.
“Sour, grumpy, not stately – Trump-like until the final moment,” Yossi Verter, a political affairs commentator, wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
The government was already facing a sensitive decision over whether to approve a flag-waving procession planned for Tuesday by Jewish nationalists through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Palestinian factions have called for a “day of rage” against the event, with memories of clashes with Israeli police still fresh from last month in contested Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and in a neighborhood of the city where Palestinians face eviction in a court dispute with Jewish settlers.
“This is a provocation of our people and an aggression against our Jerusalem and our holy sites,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said.
The Hamas Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip warned of the possibility of renewed hostilities if the march goes ahead, less than a month after a cease-fire ended 11 days of cross-border hostilities with Israeli forces.
A route change or canceling the procession could expose the Israeli government to accusations from its right-wing opponents of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.
Israeli police were due to present their route recommendations to government officials on Monday.
Deputy internal security minister Yoav Segalovitz said past governments had stopped nationalists visiting Muslim sites in times of tension.
“The main thing is to consider what’s the right thing to do at this time,” he told Israel’s Kan radio.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.
With any discord among its members a potential threat to its stability, Israel’s new government had hoped to avoid hot-button issues such as policy toward the Palestinians and to focus on domestic reforms and the economy.
“I think the milestone to look out for is the budget,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “If within 3-4 months this government will pass the 2021-22 budget then we can expect this government to serve for at least two or three years. Otherwise, the instability will continue.”
Palestinians held out scant hope of a breakthrough in a peace process leading to a state of their own. Talks with Israel collapsed in 2014.
“We don’t see the new government as less bad than the previous ones,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian cabinet.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and tech millionaire who advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a former television host.
Lapid, widely regarded as the architect of the coalition that brought down Netanyahu, is now foreign minister.


Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam
Updated 29 min 49 sec ago

Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam
  • Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
  • Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate "seriously"

KHARTOUM: Sudan is open to a partial interim agreement on Ethiopia’s multi-billion-dollar dam on the Blue Nile, with specific conditions, Irrigation Minister Yasir Abbas said on Monday.
While Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt fears it will imperil its water supply and Sudan is concerned about the impact on its own water flows.
Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate “seriously” on an agreement on filling and operating the GERD.
Cairo and Khartoum had been aligned on the need for any agreement to be comprehensive, but Abbas’s comments mark a potential shift in Sudan’s position.
” conditions include the signing-off of everything that has already been agreed on in negotiations, ... provisions to ensure that the talks continue even after the filling scheduled for July, and the negotiations adhering to a definite timetable,” Abbas told a news conference, citing a time crunch.
Ethiopia has said it will begin a second filling of the reservoir behind the dam during the rainy season this summer.
Talks overseen by the African Union, aimed at reaching a binding agreement, have repeatedly stalled.


Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized

Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized
Updated 21 min 42 sec ago

Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized

Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized
  • Fishermen said the bodies were floating in the waters of Ras Al-Ara, an area so rife with human trafficking that local people call it the ‘Gate of Hell’
  • In recent months, dozens of migrants have died in the Bab Al-Mandab strait, a major route for international trade but also for human trafficking

HODEIDAH, Yemen: The bodies of 25 migrants were recovered off Yemen on Monday after the boat that was carrying them capsized with up to 200 people on board, a provincial official told AFP.

Fishermen who found the bodies told AFP that they were floating in the waters of Ras Al-Ara in the southern province of Lahij, an area so rife with human trafficking that local people call it the “Gate of Hell.”

“The boat overturned two days ago and was carrying between 160 and 200 people,” said Jalil Ahmed Ali from the Lahij provincial authority, citing information given by Yemeni smugglers. The fate of the other people on board was unclear.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration confirmed to AFP that a boat sank in the area but said it was still trying to establish the details of the incident.

The fishermen said the victims, found in the Bab Al-Mandab strait that separates Djibouti from Yemen, appeared to be of African origin.

“We found 25 bodies of Africans who drowned when a boat carrying dozens of them sank off the Yemeni shores,” said one of the fishermen.

“We saw the bodies floating in the water 10 miles from the shores of Ras Al-Ara,” added another.

Migrants often find themselves stranded in Yemen with the beaches of Ras Al-Ara being among the areas most targeted by smugglers.

In recent months, dozens of migrants have died in the Bab Al-Mandab strait, a major route for international trade but also for human trafficking.

In April, at least 42 migrants died off Djibouti after the capsize of their boat which had left from Yemen, according to an IOM report. They were likely among those who try to return home after finding themselves stranded or detained.

The IOM reported this month that 5,100 immigrants arrived in Yemen so far this year, while 35,000 traveled in 2020 and 127,000 in 2019 before the outbreak of the coronavirus which suppressed demand for labor in the Gulf.

The UN agency often sends migrants back to their home countries from Yemen. But it said in April that more than 32,000 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, were still stranded in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.


Egypt upholds death penalty for 12 Muslim Brotherhood members

Egypt upholds death penalty for 12 Muslim Brotherhood members
Updated 39 min 39 sec ago

Egypt upholds death penalty for 12 Muslim Brotherhood members

Egypt upholds death penalty for 12 Muslim Brotherhood members

CAIRO: An Egyptian court on Monday upheld death sentences for 12 Muslim Brotherhood members, including two senior leaders of the outlawed Islamist movement, judicial sources said.
The court of cassation also reduced sentences for 31 others to life in prison, the sources told AFP, adding that the rulings were final and cannot be appealed.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood held power briefly for a year before their military ouster in 2013.


Caution on Iran nuclear deal as G7 leaders vow to stop bomb

Caution on Iran nuclear deal as G7 leaders vow to stop bomb
Updated 14 June 2021

Caution on Iran nuclear deal as G7 leaders vow to stop bomb

Caution on Iran nuclear deal as G7 leaders vow to stop bomb
  • EU coordinators suggested that differences over the 2015 accord limiting Iran's nuclear activities had narrowed further
  • Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister said a deal was unlikely to emerge in the coming week

VIENNA: Diplomats from outside the European Union cautioned Sunday that negotiations with Iran to salvage a landmark nuclear deal still need more time.
Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy nations also reaffirmed a commitment to stop the Islamic republic from building nuclear weapons.
Iranian envoys held another round of negotiations with international delegations in Vienna a day after EU coordinators suggested that differences over the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear activities had narrowed further. But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Iranian state media he thought a deal was unlikely to emerge in the coming week. A diplomat from Russia also said more time was needed to work out details.
The Vienna meetings are aimed at rebuilding a nuclear containment agreement between Iran and major world powers that the Trump administration withdrew the United States from in 2018.
US President Joe Biden and other G-7 leaders expressed support for the Vienna process after a three-day summit in southwest England that ended Sunday. The G-7 nations are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“We are committed to ensuring that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” the leaders said in a joint statement.
“A restored and fully-implemented (nuclear deal) could also pave the way to further address regional and security concerns,” the statement said.
A resolution would see Iran return to commitments made in 2015, aimed at making the development of a nuclear weapon impossible, in exchange for lighter US sanctions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Iran had been “galloping forward” with its nuclear ambitions and violating the terms of the accord since the United States pulled out of the deal.
“I think puts some urgency in seeing if we can put the nuclear problem back in the box,” Blinken said.
Sunday’s bilateral meetings followed joint negotiations held Saturday involving senior diplomats from China, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain. The United States was not directly involved.
An Iranian pro-opposition group held a small protest outside the famed Vienna Opera House, near the downtown hotel where the talks are taking place. Organizers said local police in Austria’s capital instructed them not to protest outside the hotel. The event ended peacefully.