In NATO-Gulf monarchies relations, military education is the most effective vector of cooperation. Moreover, individual partnerships work definitely better than a multilateral format. For this reason, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), launched in 2004 as a practical cooperation framework between NATO and some Arab Gulf states (United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait) has showed all its limits so far, slightly changing its nature - or rather adapting - on course.
As a matter of fact, ICI was conceived as a multilateral effort between NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), till to rapidly turn into a bilateral, NATO+1 partnership: not only Saudi Arabia and Oman opted-out since the beginning (although participating in some NATO's outreach initiatives), but the same ICI partners preferred national-tailored activities for defense transformation, and not collective ones for intra-Gulf interoperability.
This resulted into a greater role for Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programmes (IPCP): now, what keeps alive the cooperation is just military education and training. Recently, power politics has further complicated matters: the deep crisis of the GCC, (re)started on June 2017 with the unprecedented Qatar's boycott by neighbours, vanished what remained of NATO-GCC multilateral prospects.
To be honest, the partnership between NATO and the Gulf monarchies has never been seriously taken by media and, with some exceptions, by analysts, with arms procurement monopolizing the scene. Academia has also paid marginal attention to this topic: when this occurred, NATO and the Gulf monarchies were most of all analysed as an "odd couple", asking who was "doing whom a favour", since this was a "partnership without a cause" 
This is quite true. But in the current, unstable geopolitical framework, NATO and the Arab Gulf states share more occasions for partnership than before. In 2011, Qatar and the UAE joined the "Unified Protector" mission in Libya. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain contributed to the airstrikes against Daesh in Syria as part of the US-led Global Coalition; later, when NATO engaged in the operation as organization, their involvement had already decreased due to the Yemen's war. In 2017, Kuwait's National Assembly approved a NATO deal for the transit of troops and members and notwithstanding the GCC rift, NATO and Qatar expanded cooperation in 2018, as in the case of the security agreement for the protection of exchange of classified information.
The opening of the NATO-ICI Regional Centre in Kuwait on January 2017, a hub for education and training between NATO and ICI partners , is the outcome of a long - and sometimes daring - path, but it is also the proof that the Gulf entered a new zeitgeist, where military capacity building, at a national level and for nationals, is no more an option.
The Atlantic Alliance and the Gulf monarchies still have different visions of what security means: this has been the main obstacle to multilateral partnership so far. Surely, in the Gulf region, national security continues to overlap to regime security. But differently from the past, national security is also seen as a value to preserve and strengthen pursuing ambitious and military-driven foreign policies. Gulf rulers' current aspiration is bridging the gap between "military hardware" (buy sophisticated weapons) and "military software" (shape indigenous know-how and skills), since power projection needs enhanced military capabilities. Therefore, military education is a game-changer to shift from technology transfer to the acquisition and consolidation of local, human expertise.
At a military education level, the cooperation between the Gulf monarchies and the Atlantic Alliance can now make the difference, for the Gulf region, in two sensitive areas: the protection of critical energy and maritime infrastructures, and the further professionalization of the armed forces. Therefore, it is not by chance that one of the first courses organized by the NATO-ICI Regional Centre in Kuwait regarded energy security training : this timely topic stands also at the crossroads between border security and maritime security.
Arab Gulf states' energy and maritime infrastructures are increasingly challenged by hybrid threats and this occurs while they invest in long-term mega-projects requiring high levels of security provision. For instance, not to mention Iran's ballistic missile program, Yemen's Huthi insurgents repeatedly target with ballistic missiles Saudi Aramco's oil facilities in bordering Jizan, or strike navies (sometimes also commercial vessels), threatening freedom of navigation in the Red Sea with missiles, rockets, remote-controlled explosive boats and water mines. In Yemen, Special Forces of the UAE Presidential Guard train and support Yemeni institutionalized militias in the protection of the LNG terminal in Balhaf (Shabwa region), menaced by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the main Bahrain's oil pipeline was set on fire on November 2017.
The professionalization of the Arab Gulf states' armed forces is a growing reality, with particular regard to the armies: their tasks develop and widen, also abroad. Through military education, NATO can play a stronger role also for the newly-established Gulf’s national military academies, providing expertise and lessons learned. Three senior level defense colleges were recently opened in the UAE (first class in 2013), Oman (2013) and Saudi Arabia (now under full restructuring). The creation of a GCC Defense College, decided in 2015, has been frozen due to the Qatari crisis. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also invested in security studies education for civilians. In the Gulf region, the UAE have the closest relationship with NATO also in terms of military education: the Abu Dhabi-based National Defense College sends regularly its Emirati staff to attend courses at the NATO Defense College in Rome. 
In the last decade, NATO’s non-US members established a number of permanent military bases in the Gulf: France in Abu Dhabi (2009), Turkey in Qatar (2017), United Kingdom in Bahrain (2018). London is considering a "permanent military presence" in Kuwait. Such a strategic involvement boosts military-to-military cooperation and joint training with members of the Atlantic Alliance, although these bilateral experiences don’t fall into a NATO framework for training.
Given the widening maritime radius of Gulf’s geopolitics, the monarchies are investing in naval forces to improve maritime and blue water capabilities, as they also opened, unprecedentedly, military bases in the Horn of Africa. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman have strong naval training ties with Asian powers (Pakistan for the Saudis, India for Emiratis and Omanis), consolidating diversified alliances also on a military training level. In this looming field, not only NATO can be an invaluable partner, but the Atlantic Alliance and the Gulf monarchies are showing convergent interests in critical maritime areas. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (with the UAE and Kuwait) operatively joined the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) tasked with counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, where NATO headed, contemporarily, the "Ocean Shield" mission (2009-2016): these waters are now threatened by Yemen and Somalia’s rising instability.
Which is ICI’s main legacy fourteen years on? In terms of partnership, it achieved modest results. But training is goal-oriented and focused on the present, while military education is knowledge-oriented, aiming to build enduring trust and cultural awareness: the last one has been the constant, the fil rouge able to keep NATO-Gulf partnership alive despite a stormy Middle Eastern context. It allowed to downplay political rifts and provided a positive-sum exchange based on practical cooperation and cultural networking, as in the case of the successful NATO Regional Cooperation Course (NRCC).  For this reason, in NATO-Gulf partners relationship, the role of military education, as a powerful driver of confidence-building, has not to be underestimated or simply classified as "lower politics".
 Florence Gaub, “The Odd Couple: NATO and the GCC”, in Riccardo Alcaro-Andrea Dessì (eds), “The Uneasy Balance. Potential Challenges of West’s Relations with the Gulf states”, IAI Research papers, Edizioni Nuova Cultura, 2013, pp.113-26; Matteo Legrenzi, ““NATO in the Gulf: who is doing whom a favour?”, Middle East Policy Council, 2007; Jean-Loup Samaan, “NATO in the Gulf: Partnership Without a Cause?”, NATO Defense College, Research paper 83, October 2012.
 Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, Eleonora Ardemagni, “NATO and the Gulf: the new Regional Centre in Kuwait”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, ISPI Commentary, 2 March 2017.
 Energy security training is the second of five courses supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme (SPS) and started on September 2017 in Kuwait City; the others deal with cyber defense, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.
 Author conversation with an UAE-based scholar, 27 June 2018.
 Started in 2009, the NRCC is the main educational NATO’s outreach initiative offered to ICI and Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) members. It is a ten-week course for high-rank officers and civilians coming from MENA partners, organized twice a year at the NATO Defense College.