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

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

  • 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.”


Battle for the Nile: How Egypt will be impacted by Ethiopia’s filling of GERD reservoir

Updated 19 June 2021

Battle for the Nile: How Egypt will be impacted by Ethiopia’s filling of GERD reservoir

  • For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on how quickly the reservoir should be filled
  • On the eve of the summer rains on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin

LONDON: In the decade since Ethiopia announced it was going to build Africa’s biggest hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, the source of the bulk of Egypt’s water, the prospect has loomed over Egyptians as an existential threat.

For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, its two downstream neighbors, on how quickly its vast reservoir should be filled, and how the electricity-generating Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be operated in the years to come. Now, on the eve of the anticipated annual summer rains that fall on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin in earnest.

DEEP DIVE: For a longer, interactive version of this story: https://www.arabnews.com/BattleForTheNile


Ultraconservative cleric Raisi wins Iran presidential vote

Updated 18 min 22 sec ago

Ultraconservative cleric Raisi wins Iran presidential vote

  • Hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi was seen as all but certain to emerge victorious
  • Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined those who said they would not cast their ballot

TEHRAN: Congratulations poured in for Iranian ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on Saturday for winning presidential elections even before official results were announced.
Iran’s outgoing moderate President Hassan Rouhani said his successor had been elected in the previous day’s vote, without naming the widely expected winner, Raisi.
“I congratulate the people on their choice,” said Rouhani. “My official congratulations will come later, but we know who got enough votes in this election and who is elected today by the people.”
The other two ultraconservative candidates – Mohsen Rezai and Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi – explicitly congratulated Raisi.
“I congratulate ... Raisi, elected by the nation,” Ghazizadeh-Hashemi said, quoted by Iranian media.
And Rezai tweeted that he hoped Raisi could build “a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems”.
The only reformist in the race, former central bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati, also tweeted his congratulations to Raisi.
Raisi, 60, would take over from moderate Rouhani at a time the Islamic republic is seeking to salvage its tattered nuclear deal with major powers and free itself from punishing US sanctions that have driven a painful economic downturn.
Raisi, the head of the judiciary whose black turban signifies direct descent from Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, is seen as close to the 81-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political power in Iran.
The moderate candidate in Iran’s presidential election has conceded he lost to the country’s hard-line judiciary chief.
Former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati wrote on Instagram to judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi early Saturday.
Hemmati wrote: “I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran.”
Voting on Friday was extended by two hours past the original midnight deadline amid fears of a low turnout of 50 percent or less.
Many voters chose to stay away after the field of some 600 hopefuls was winnowed down to seven candidates, all men, excluding an ex-president and a former parliament speaker.
Three of the vetted candidates dropped out of the race two days before Friday’s election, and two of them threw their support behind Raisi.
Former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of those who were disqualified by the powerful 12-member Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, joined those who said they would not cast their ballot.
Raisi’s only rival from the reformist camp was the low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, 65, who had polled in the low single digits before the election.
Iran’s electorate, of now almost 60 million eligible voters, has delivered surprise results before, observers warn. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held next Friday.
On election day, pictures of often flag-waving voters in the country of 83 million dominated state TV coverage, but away from the polling stations some voiced anger at what they saw as a stage-managed election.
“Whether I vote or not, someone has already been elected,” scoffed Tehran shopkeeper Saeed Zareie. “They organize the elections for the media.”
Enthusiasm has been dampened further by the economic malaise of spiralling inflation and job losses, and the pandemic that proved more deadly in Iran than anywhere else in the region, killing more than 80,000 people by the official count.
Among those who lined up to vote at schools, mosques and community centers, many said they supported Raisi, who has promised to fight corruption, help the poor and build millions of flats for low-income families.
A nurse named Sahebiyan said she backed the frontrunner for his anti-graft credentials and on hopes he would “move the country forward... and save the people from economic, cultural and social deprivation.”
Raisi has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.
To opposition and human rights groups, his name is linked to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The US government has sanctioned him over the purge, in which Raisi has denied playing a part.
Ultimate power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader, but the president wields major influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.
Rouhani, 72, leaves office in August after serving the maximum two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.
His landmark achievement was the 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
But high hopes for greater prosperity were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran.
While Iran has always denied seeking a nuclear weapon, Trump charged it is still planning to build the bomb and destabilising the Middle East through armed proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fueled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.
Iran’s ultraconservative camp — which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the “Great Satan” or the “Global Arrogance” in the Islamic republic — attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.
Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the candidates including Raisi that Iran must seek an end to the US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna aiming to revive the nuclear accord


EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

Updated 19 June 2021

EU’s Borrell plans Beirut talks as economic crisis fears deepen

  • Lebanon fuel crunch inspires demonstrations at gas stations and supermarkets
  • Rocket-propelled grenades found in Beirut rubbish

BEIRUT: Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, is expected to start a round of talks with Lebanese officials in Beirut on Saturday.

This comes days ahead of a meeting of EU officials in Brussels, called by France, to discuss imposing sanctions on Lebanese officials accused of corruption and political obstruction.

Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director general of the General Security, highlighted “Russia’s constant will to stand by Lebanon and support it on the economic and security levels.”

He made his comments following talks with Russian officials.

Ibrahim added: “There should be a government, regardless of its form, in order to find solutions to all problems in Lebanon.”

He is a prominent figure in Lebanon who often conducts foreign negotiations.

Meanwhile, the living crisis is worsening, leading to armed clashes.

People are still waiting for long hours to fill up on gasoline amid shortages of fuel, which is subsidized by the state. The subsidy is expected to be lifted soon.

But this is dependent on the ration card for needy people, which is still being debated by parliamentary committees.

The fuel crisis sparked a clash on Friday in front of a gas station in Tripoli, which led to a shooting, with no casualties.

Also in Tripoli, a clash in front of a supermarket led to exchanging shots, causing two injuries.

The city has the biggest percentage of struggling Lebanese, who were impoverished further due to the collapse of the currency.

For the second consecutive day, employees of the public sector stuck to their strike which was called for by the Public Administration Employees Association in protest against the collapse of their purchasing power and the deterioration of economic and living conditions.

Contacts and consultations related to forming the new government have stalled after the failure of the initiative of the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, but he has insisted that “it is still standing.”

Walid Jumblatt, president of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) said: “It is impossible for some officials to keep waiting while the country’s conditions are retreating.”

Jumblatt added: “It is time for a settlement away from personal calculations.”

In the past two days, Berri had joined Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in accusing President Michel Aoun and his political party of trying to get the blocking third in the government, contrary to the constitution.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Internal Security forces announced that they “captured 16 RPG type rocket-propelled grenades, and five grenades of other types dumped in waste containers near the House of the Druze Community in Lebanon in Beirut.”

Internal Security also declared that the “old ammunition” was removed after being examined by its explosives experts.

The identity of the party which disposed of the ammunition remains unknown.

The Anti-Narcotics Division at the Lebanese Customs seized a large quantity of Captagon pills hidden in a container loaded with stones, destined to be smuggled to Saudi Arabia via the port of Beirut.

“Some people implicated in the operation were arrested,” declared the caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmi.

Speaking at the Port of Beirut, he revealed that the shipment was destined for Jeddah.


EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

Updated 18 June 2021

EU sets out potential criteria for Lebanese sanctions — document

  • Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon's squabbling politicians
  • Senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil

PARIS/BRUSSELS: Criteria for European Union sanctions being prepared for Lebanese politicians are likely to be corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mishandling and human rights abuses, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters.
Led by France, the EU is seeking to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after 11 months of a crisis that has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, electricity blackouts, and fuel and food shortages.
The bloc, which has been holding technical discussions on possible measures for the last month, has yet to decide on which approach to take, but foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is due in Lebanon this weekend and will report back to foreign ministers on Monday.
As many senior Lebanese politicians have homes, bank accounts and investments in the EU, and send their children to universities there, a withdrawal of that access could help focus minds.
Paris says it has already taken measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese officials it sees as blocking efforts to tackle the crisis, which is rooted in decades of state corruption and debt, although it has not named anybody publicly.
The EU first needs to set up a sanctions regime that could then see individuals hit by travel bans and asset freezes, although it may also decide to not list anybody immediately.
The note, which also outlines the strengths and weaknesses of taking such a measure, focuses on four criteria. It begins with obstructing the establishment of a government, the political process or the successful completion of the political transition and then turns to obstructing the implementation of urgent reforms needed to overcome the political, economic and social crisis.
Financial mishandling, which would target people, entities or bodies believed to be responsible for the mismanagement of public finances and the banking sector, is also a core criteria as is the violation of human rights as a result of the economic and social crisis.
“It might be argued that the lack of political responsibility of the leadership in Lebanon is at the core of a massive implosion of the economy,” the note reads, referring to the possible human rights criteria.
“This has led to significant suffering and has affected the human rights of the population in Lebanon.”
Such diplomatic notes are common in EU policymaking, circulated among EU diplomats and officials, although they are not made public.
The note also says an “exit strategy” proposing benchmarks for establishing whether the sanctions regime has served its purpose as well as for renewing or lifting individual designations should also be put in place.
How quickly sanctions could be imposed is still unclear, but with political divisions continuing to worsen, the bloc is likely to press ahead before the summer holiday period.
There are divisions among the 27 EU states over the wisdom of EU sanctions, but the bloc’s two main powers, France and Germany are in favor, which is likely to prove pivotal. A larger group of nations has yet to specify their approach.
Hungary has publicly denounced EU efforts to pressure Lebanese politicians.
A senior European official told Reuters Paris had set its sights on sanctioning powerful Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who is already under US sanctions.


10 arrested, 9 injured as protesters at Al-Aqsa face rubber bullets

Updated 19 June 2021

10 arrested, 9 injured as protesters at Al-Aqsa face rubber bullets

  • About 1,000 Palestinians gathered in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound after weekly prayers

JERUSALEM: Israeli police on Friday arrested 10 Palestinians during clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, with nine people injured as protesters hurled rocks and officers fired rubber bullets, police and medics said.

About 1,000 people gathered in the compound after weekly prayers chanting “God is great” and some hoisting Palestinian flags. Some demonstrators threw stones at police, who raided the site, a reporter said.

The confrontation came after Palestinians protested against Jewish nationalists who had marched through Israel-annexed East Jerusalem on Tuesday, chanting insults to Islam.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said nine people were hurt, including three hospitalized in the confrontation, with injuries due to “beatings, rubber bullets and sound bombs.”

“Several dozen youths began disturbing the order and throwing stones toward security men,” police said in a statement, adding that “Ten suspects were arrested.”

A day earlier, police said they arrested eight people who demonstrated at the Damascus Gate, an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, where the nationalist Jewish march had congregated.

Also on Friday, Palestinians protested near Nablus in the occupied West Bank against the expansion of a Jewish settlement on the lands of Beita village. The Red Crescent said 47 people were injured when security forces fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

The Al-Aqsa compound lies in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967, in a move most of the international community does not recognize.