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NATO opens regional center in Kuwait

January 24, 2017

NATO has opened its first regional center in the Gulf region. Meanwhile, Kuwait's foreign minister is to make a rare visit to Iran to set up a "basis of dialogue" between Gulf Arab states and Tehran.

NATO Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg in Kuwait
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/J. Abdulkhaleg

Speaking in Kuwait City on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he was "proud" to inaugurate NATO's regional center in the Gulf state. On social media, he called the center's potential "enormous."

Stoltenberg said that over the past year, NATO has trained hundreds of Iraqi officers in Jordan to better fight the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) extremist group, which he referred to by its alternative initials "ISIL."

"We are now extending our training and capacity-building efforts into Iraq itself," he added.

NATO would continue to fight terrorism in other ways, including with direct support to the anti-IS coalition, Stoltenberg said.

The regional center would also provide advanced training courses on cybersecurity, energy security and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the NATO chief added.

The center was developed as a result of NATO's political dialogue and practical cooperation with four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, through NATO's Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) which was launched in 2004. The aim had been to boost security links with the Middle East, in particular Gulf Arab states.

The other two members of the GCC, Saudi Arabia and Oman, have said they plan to join the ICI.

Dialogue with Iran?

Meanwhile, Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah is to make a rare visit to Iran on Wednesday, delivering a message to President Hassan Rouhani on a "basis of dialogue."

To date, Iran and GCC member Saudi Arabia have been at loggerheads and back opposite sides in the civil wars in both Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, cut diplomatic relations with Iran in January last year.

An estimated 30 percent of Kuwait's population is Shiite, and as such the emirate has been seen as a potential mediator between GCC members and Iran. Kuwait's emir visited Iran in 2014 in what was a first by a ruler of the US-allied state since Iran's 1979 revolution.

"We are partners in the region and we have many common interests and possibilities," said Sabah. He added that dialogue would be for the benefit of both sides. "Gulf states have a true desire that relations with Iran are normal and based on international law," he told reporters after attending the inauguration of the NATO center.

NATO Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg in Kuwait
'European allies have to spend more, have to invest more on defense': StoltenbergImage: picture-alliance/abaca/J. Abdulkhaleg

NATO and the US administration

Speaking at the inauguration, Stoltenberg said the new US administration was "fully committed" to the Western military alliance despite strong criticism from US President Donald Trump.

"I spoke with President Trump a few days after he was elected in November and he conveyed a very strong message to me that he personally was very committed to NATO and the trans-Atlantic partnership," said Stoltenberg.

However, he did pick up on some of the criticisms of the organization which have come from the Trump camp. "European allies have to spend more, have to invest more on defense," he said. "We have seen some progress but there is a long way to go."

jm/cmk (AFP, Reuters)