Last January, U.S. President Donald Trump reasserted his desire for NATO to be more involved in the Middle East. Following previous calls from U.S. administrations for closer cooperation between NATO and Middle Eastern partners, Trump’s idea was a reminder that the U.S. did not intend to solely bear the cost of security assistance to the region. NATO does have old and extensive military relations with local armed forces, but given the limited results of that engagement, Washington’s expectations of a new division of labor are doomed to fail.

Competing political agendas among NATO members have hindered the implementation of any ambitious partnership in the region. The U.S. and southern European countries, such as Italy and Spain, have long pushed for greater NATO involvement beyond the Mediterranean Sea. In contrast, other countries, like France, dismissed the organization as a military entity with no diplomatic experience to handle Middle Eastern predicaments. Moreover, Turkey, under President Erdogan, systematically tried to block NATO activities in the region that did not align with its own strategy, such as NATO cooperation with Israel or Egypt.

Notwithstanding the political hurdles, military relations between the transatlantic organization and local armed forces have endured and deepened in the last three decades. With numerous training initiatives, NATO’s contribution to military reforms in the Middle East has been significant in terms of defense diplomacy, specifically by enabling the international socialization of local armed forces. However, because of the political constraints in Brussels, the U.S. administration should better calibrate its expectations. NATO’s involvement in the operational effectiveness of Arab militaries has been and will remain modest and does not contribute to their much-needed modernization.

The two primary vehicles of NATO policies in the region are the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD), signed in 1994 with Israel and six Arab countries (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). The ICI was finalized in 2004 and involves four Gulf monarchies (the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain). These partnerships were later revised to include a variety of activities ranging from diplomatic consultations to training activities. In 2016 NATO began applying a new approach to its regional partnerships called “projecting stability”. The concept emphasizes the need to stabilize areas of interest, such as the Middle East, by helping regional partners strengthening their military capabilities. Since then, “projecting stability” has been the prevailing narrative for NATO Middle East engagement.

Military education and training are the cornerstone of NATO regional policy. Middle Eastern partners participate in numerous programs, including military exercises, attendance to operational courses at the NATO School in Germany, and strategic-level courses at the NATO Defense College in Italy. This last entity delivers a Regional Cooperation Course, which has trained over 600 officers from NATO and Middle Eastern militaries to date.

In 2017, NATO and Kuwait inaugurated the NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Centre, calling it “a new home for the Alliance in the Gulf”. This center, which the Kuwaiti government hosts, gathers NATO and Gulf officers through courses focused on security issues such as maritime security and energy infrastructure security, or cybersecurity.1 In the last three years, the center delivered 40 short-term programs attended by about 1000 participants from GCC countries. Finally, in 2018, NATO resumed its training mission to the Iraqi armed forces. The mission was originally launched in 2004 after the U.S. invasion and heavily relied on U.S. political support and military resources. About 15000 Iraqi officers were trained until the program was disbanded following the 2011 U.S. withdrawal under President Obama, though NATO continued to provide occasional training to Iraqi officials, particularly in the field of crisis management exercises.2

NATO training and education programs in the Middle East have primarily been successful in the field of defense diplomacy by creating new international networks of military leaders. Over the last two decades, these activities created processes and routines for officers on both sides to engage on a regular basis. NATO played the role of an “agent of socialization” in the same way Alexandra Gheciu depicted NATO engagement in East Europe in the nineties. The social proximity and the informal ties built through these programs allowed both sides to conduct close consultations between defense officials. According to NATO decision-makers, this played a decisive role in the coordination of NATO forces with Qatari and Emirati counterparts when the latter joined the 2011 operation in Libya.3

Furthermore, as regional organizations in the Middle East like the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have struggled to build joint military structures, NATO programs help Arab officers better grasp the nature of multilateral defense work. This enables them to enhance their interoperability. NATO provided a standard to emulate for the GCC as the NATO Military Committee and the NATO Defense College were references used by the GCC to design its own joint command and its Gulf Defense Academy.4

Beyond these achievements, the success of the NATO military cooperation in the Middle East is proportional to its limited scope. The NATO mission in Iraq relies on approximately 500 advisors. Yet its presence in Kuwait is even more modest: two representatives from Brussels Headquarters are assigned to the center, and most of the training activities are provided by “mobile teams” sent from various commands in Europe and the U.S.

Admittedly, last February the alliance and the Iraqi government announced their intent to add troops dedicated to the training mission, but the coronavirus pandemic is jeopardizing this decision. The pandemic disrupts military deployments in Europe, as well as in Iraq, where the military suspended all its training activities. For the time being, most NATO countries have withdrawn their troops and redeployed them to Kuwait while waiting for the end of the health crisis. Given the unpredictable duration of the outbreak, it is unclear when NATO could resume the mission, and if its expansion would still follow.

More worryingly, NATO assistance to the Middle East lacks a clear sense of purpose. A high-level Kuwaiti security official described it back in 2012 as “a partnership without a cause.5 The NATO bureaucracy is such that training initiatives are usually launched after a major decision taken in Brussels—but policy follow-up is limited, if not absent. During conversations with NATO officials, they were unable to refer to specific measures of assessment and tended to use the mere existence of activities as a sign of success. In the case of the Kuwait-based center, NATO representatives acknowledged an ongoing discussion on the establishment of assessment metrics.Yet specifying performance indicators with local partners may challenge their governance of armed forces and therefore tends to be dismissed in Brussels as too politically sensitive. Efforts inside the organization to build a comprehensive strategy that identifies desired outcomes and closely monitors the effectiveness of ongoing training activities in the Middle East are absent.

As a result, the U.S. government should realign its objectives towards the Atlantic Alliance in the Middle East with the reality of NATO’s regional engagement. Given the limitations of NATO’s military cooperation—however, small successes it has yielded—and its security assistance, it should not expect to decisively impact the military effectiveness of Middle Eastern partners. But NATO has and can continue to make a difference on other issues by reinforcing multinational defense diplomacy, helping Arab military forces identify best practices for joint planning, and common training and education programs. By emphasizing multilateral cooperation, the alliance can strengthen the security architecture of the Middle East—a worthy ultimate goal in the region. 

Jean-Loup Samaan is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies with the UAE National Defense College. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the UAE National Defense College, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, nor any government.


1. Author’s email correspondence with a NATO academic advisor, March 29, 2020.

2. The author took part in a NATO training visit in Iraq, January 2014.

3. Author’s phone interview with NATO military officer, March 2020.

4. Author’s phone interviews with Gulf officers and NATO officials, March 2020.

5. Authori’s interview in Kuwait City, April 2012.

6. Author’s email correspondence with a NATO academic advisor, March 29, 2020.