The NATO PA’s Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group Gathers Parliamentarians from Across the MENA Region and Beyond for Dialogue on Shared Security Challenges at Rome Seminar

22 May 2024

Leading legislators from NATO Allies and candidate countries, as well as partners from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) convened in Rome from 6-7 May for a high-level two-day seminar to foster closer dialogue and cooperation as global security challenges grow. The Italian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) hosted the seminar at a critical time: Allies will prioritise strengthening cooperation with partners across their Southern flank as they head to a milestone summit in Washington in July, as 2024 marks 30 years of the Alliance’s Mediterranean Dialogue and 20 years of its Istanbul Cooperative Initiative.  

Throughout the seminar, legislators, officials and experts alike agreed that not only are regional and global security challenges escalating, but they are also increasingly interconnected and complex. Driving the complexity is the convergence of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea on a shared purpose to undermine Western efforts to uphold the rules-based international order. This ‘axis of disruption’, as NATO PA Vice-President Marcos Perestrello (Portugal) termed it in his remarks to open the seminar, is adding to already significant challenges upending security across the MENA region.  

As delegates and officials weighed the impact of variables driving current challenges, they all agreed that their solutions required increased cross-Mediterranean dialogue and cooperation. All participants resolved to work to strengthen the trust necessary to solve their shared challenges.  

Lorenzo Cesa, Head of the Italian delegation to the NATO PA, and Fernando Gutierrez, Chairperson of the Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM), led the delegation of over 60 members of parliament from 16 Allied countries, 3 NATO candidates, and 7 MENA partners. The Assembly’s GSM seminars have a 30-year tradition of supporting and complimenting the Alliance’s outreach to NATO’s Southern neighbourhood, understanding that parliamentary-level dialogue is an essential pillar to building trust, mutual understanding and common responses to threats and challenges.  

At the conclusion of the Rome seminar, NATO parliamentarians travelled to NATO’s Joint Force Command Naples (JFC Naples) for command briefings and updates from the Alliance’s Strategic Direction-South HUB (NSD-S HUB). 

NATO’s Approach to its Southern Flank in Focus in 2024: A Growing Confluence of Threats

NATO’s Eastern flank has rightly been at the centre of focus since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but, as the security challenges across the vast arc pushing up against its Southern flank have increased, Allies understand the imperative of maintaining a capable 360-degree approach to their security. As NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General Javier Colomina stressed, Allies’ challenges from the East and to the South are both complex and intertwined – those to the South are particularly exacerbated by challenging threat multipliers such as climate change and food insecurity. NATO Allies across the Southern flank feel a range of security challenges acutely, from the ever-present and evolving threat of terrorism to increased irregular migration and maritime traffic disruption. 

The NATO Secretary General appointed an independent group of experts in October 2023 to develop recommendations for a new Allied policy agenda toward the South. Allied leaders are expected to adopt a set of measures at NATO’s Washington Summit this July. Mr. Colomina made it clear the new approach would seek to enhance political dialogue, increase Allied engagement, augment the capabilities of existing outreach mechanisms, and deepen cooperation with important international organisations working across the region, such as the African Union and the United Nations. 

Allies’ focus on the South comes at a consequential moment. While the ongoing war in Gaza garners the most attention, there is an underlying change of dynamics driving a growing level of destabilisation. As Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, Chief of the Italian Defence Staff, underscored: Russia, China and Iran have a common agenda to undermine the international rules-based order, and this is playing out across the Southern neighbourhood. For example, Russian-Iranian economic, political, and military cooperation is significant and growing – Iranian drones play a key role in Russia’s air war against Ukraine, while Moscow has become Tehran’s largest weapons supplier and foreign investor – all done blatantly against long-standing international sanctions regimes. Iran’s support of regional armed terrorist groups and the Assad regime in Syria fuels regional conflict and chaos – to the benefit of both Tehran and Moscow. 

Experts and officials throughout the seminar agreed, stressing that, for Russia, constant disruption along NATO’s Southern flank feeds into what Moscow now views as a shadow war with NATO Allies. This shadow war is fuelled by disinformation and a wide range of complex hybrid disruptions – all of which have reached new levels of escalation since Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Most pressing for NATO according to Brigadier General Alessio Nardi, a member of the independent group of experts on NATO’s relationship with the Southern neighbourhood, is the combined efforts of Russia and Iran to disrupt maritime security in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, which is abetting China’s efforts to control strategic harbours in the Mediterranean. Other experts also stressed that the growing challenge of complex asymmetrical threats from terrorism to irregular migration are only likely to grow over the horizon. 

As several NATO PA members made clear, the Assembly’s push to establish a Centre for Democratic Resilience at NATO Headquarters would go a long way to assist efforts to mitigate these disruptive hybrid challenges. In the NATO PA’s view, such a centre would provide best practices and assistance to both Allies and partners to strengthen resilience to disinformation, hybrid threats, and foreign malign interference.  

Guido Crosetto, Minister of Defence of Italy, echoed these views by stating clearly that what brings NATO Allies and their partners from across the South together for such a seminar is the attachment to a common vision for a rules-based order, which in turn enables mutual prosperity in a secure and stable environment. He stressed that NATO, together with its partners, must strive to protect its fundamental values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. To get there, he said, the role of parliaments will be essential: “This has a deep parliamentarian angle; strong parliaments are the guardians of democratic stability and the institutional strength necessary to sustain a strong democratic order.” 

Euro-Atlantic Relations with the Gulf and the influencing of third-party actors in the MENA region

Euro-Atlantic relations with the Gulf have undergone a significant evolution in recent years. Cinzia Bianco, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) noted that while the U.S. remains a vital security ally for the six Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies, trust between them has gradually eroded, and this changing dynamic has implications for the entire Alliance. Over time, divergent priorities and security needs have thus diminished security cooperation between the Gulf monarchies and NATO. Other experts emphasised that Gulf countries are prioritising their national interests over alignment with the West, as demonstrated by their lack of condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and their decision to abstain from adopting sanctions.  

China and Iran’s growing role (and interference) in the Gulf and broader MENA region has further destabilised the regional security environment. Camille Lons, Research Fellow and Deputy Head of the Paris Office at the European Council on Foreign Relations, highlighted China’s expanding regional economic and political influence over the past decade – China is still the largest buyer of Gulf oil and, a notable example of the deepening China-Gulf relations can be seen in Beijing’s facilitating role in the recent Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement. The strengthening of economic ties in crucial strategic sectors, such as artificial intelligence, technology, and renewable energy production, raises concerns about China’s potential role in reshaping regional priorities and the region’s relationship with global powers. This also prompts apprehensions in the U.S. about the risk of technology transfer and espionage of critical infrastructures.  

Gulf states, for their part, have sought to strike a balance between China and the U.S. to maintain access to Western economic and security support. As delegates and experts stressed in discussions over the seminar, such a hedging strategy may not be sustainable in the long term, especially if the situation in the Indo-Pacific deteriorates.  

Despite these challenges, NATO’s cooperation with the Gulf can be rebooted. As Giovanni Romani, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Section at NATO, argued, the Gulf monarchies and NATO can collaborate to achieve the common objective of ensuring security and stability in the region. NATO serves as a valuable partner in areas where its intervention is seen as beneficial, including counterterrorism, safeguarding critical infrastructure, and addressing climate change.  

Presentation of the GSM Report and Russia’s Destabilising Efforts in the South

Theo Francken (Belgium), Rapporteur of the GSM, presented the first draft of the latest GSM report entitled – Russia’s Destabilising Role in NATO’s Southern Neighbourhood. Francken emphasised the significance of the Middle East and Africa as critical arenas for Russia’s efforts to spread its influence, disrupt international norms, and undermine the West. Francken said Russia’s open challenge to NATO, while replete with military aggression in Ukraine and brinksmanship along NATO’s Eastern flank, also seeks to exploit vulnerabilities and insecurities across NATO’s Southern neighbourhood. Key to this is the Kremlin’s use of private militias like the Wagner Group to exacerbate instability and advance its imperial agenda. Other hybrid tactics, such as the weaponisation of migration towards Europe, have also been used across the Sahel to expose perceived vulnerabilities and influence Western public opinion. 

In his remarks, Francken noted that to support these objectives, Russia has cultivated partnerships in the Alliance’s Southern neighbourhood with regimes that also share revisionist ambitions. In this context, Francken underlined the accelerated strategic cooperation between Moscow and Tehran, and highlighted the Iranian regime’s growing threat to security in both the Euro-Atlantic and MENA regions.  

Delegates’ discussion of the report underscored the need for NATO members to acknowledge past mistakes, particularly in the worsening situation in the Sahel. In the face of Russia’s growing malign influence, building constructive relationships with regional partners is essential to counter growing anti-Western sentiments.  

Despite Russia’s efforts in the greater MENA region, NATO should remember its significant capabilities and economic superiority and reinforce the Alliance’s 360-degree approach to security. Allies should engage in regional dialogue frameworks to provide tailored support and appoint a NATO Special Representative for the South. Developing collective responses to counter Russian private militias and presenting viable alternatives to Russia can help address regional instability and enhance cooperation with regional partners.  

Tackling Shared-Security Challenges in the Euro-Mediterranean Region

The MENA region is warming up twice as fast as the global average and faces severe water scarcity, making it one of the most water-stressed areas in the world. This situation presents significant concerns for the region’s energy and food security. Speakers underscored the importance of strengthening partnerships with MENA countries particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.  

The dire consequences of climate change on water and food security have also an impact on migration flows. As Meskerem Brhane, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank, argued, climate migration hotspots are projected to emerge in North Africa as early as 2030. Climate change works as a threat multiplier, exacerbating flows of climate migrants throughout the MENA region. The catastrophic consequences of climate change can be mitigated by up to 80% only through collective response. As all experts stressed, Allies must help MENA countries adapt to climate change in order to mitigate its effects, prevent displacement, economic downturns, and socio-economic instability. 

Food security equally remains a critical challenge. Conflicts and instability across the Southern neighbourhood, combined with high dependence on food imports and adverse weather conditions, are fuelling inflation in the cost of food across MENA economies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amplified these trends, and heightened food insecurity in both the Middle East and Africa. 

Middle East and North African countries play a crucial role in meeting Europe’s energy requirements. The war in Ukraine has underscored the importance of finding stable alternatives to replace Russian gas in the short term. As a result, the EU has looked to MENA countries for new sources of reliable energy. In the medium to long term, cooperation with regional partners is essential to advance the European decarbonisation strategy. Carlo Frappi, Adjunct Professor at Cà Foscari University of Venice, highlighted the opportunities this presents but also the challenges associated with relying on MENA countries for energy supplies. To mitigate risks, the EU must ensure environmentally sustainable practices and invest in green infrastructure in the region to maintain energy security.  

NATO’s Joint Force Command-Naples and HUB for the South

At the seminar’s conclusion, delegates from Allied nations travelled to Naples for a series of briefings from officers overseeing NATO’s Joint Force Command, as well as from officials working with NATO’s Strategic Direction-South HUB (NSD-S HUB). As Allies implement a new baseline for deterrence and defence, as agreed upon at the 2023 Vilnius Summit, JFC Naples is among the Alliance’s three commands leading the way. As briefers noted, JFC Naples’ mission is to plan, prepare, and conduct operations across all domains in support of NATO’s three core tasks – collective defence, crisis response, and cooperative security.  

As Allied commanders at JFC Naples stressed, NATO’s Southern flank faces acute challenges; Russia’s war in Ukraine presents the most significant war in Europe in seven decades, the Sahel has witnessed the most coups d’état since decolonisation, tensions are rising again in the Balkans, and the Levant is seeing its highest level of disruption to regional peace and stability in decades. To mitigate the impact these challenges and threats have on the Alliance, JFC Naples oversees two critical operations – NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the NATO Mission-Iraq (NMI) – as well as a host of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and cooperative security outreach efforts. As briefers noted, while the focus of these ISR efforts is fixed on NATO’s two main threats – Russia’s war in Ukraine and its regional destabilisation efforts as well as the evolving asymmetrical challenge of terrorism – it is also monitoring and reacting to a host of other parallel or associated challenges from irregular migration to the impact of climate change on security. JFC Naples’ efforts to understand and respond to the range of Southern flank challenges is assisted by the work of NATO’s Strategic Direction-South HUB, which grew out of NATO’s 2016 framework for the South and projecting stability initiatives.  

As briefers noted, NATO’s NSD-S HUB is designed to be a focal point for increasing mutual understanding and policy shaping of the regional dynamics across the MENA, Sahel, Sub-Saharan Africa, and their adjacent areas. The large remit highlights the complexity of the challenge facing the Alliance – not only are there significant deep local challenges due to issues like weak state institutions fostered by ethnic and confessional divisions, as well as economic and biological imperatives growing out of the impact of climate change; but there is an increasing effort by Russia and China to interfere in the region – to promote their own interests, as well as undermine those of Allies. As a briefer observed, the convergence of Russia and China’s agenda across the MENA can be summed up by the ‘challenge, co-opt, and construct’ alliteration – challenge Allies’ standing interests and regional efforts, co-opt regional states and institutions for their own purposes to eventually construct a new order to suit their interests. To counteract these efforts, the time for Allies to redouble their efforts across the South is now. 

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