- In the 2011-2021 decade, military education has not significantly changed in terms of approach, despite new challenges and rising strategic ambitions in many Arab states;
- However, military education programs and entities across the region are multiplying to improve the tactical and strategic skills of Arab officers, with particular regard to the Gulf monarchies;
- Nonetheless, this has not translated into national strategic cultures so far: many of these initiatives still rely on the provision of Western support, especially from the US and the UK;
As of 2021, military education in the Arab world has not fundamentally changed from a decade ago. This may come as a surprise if one were to assume that the regional and domestic changes of the last ten years would have altered the role of armed forces in the region. However, a closer look at the ways Arab militaries train today shows that, overall, they were not significantly affected by trends such as the 2011 revolutions and civil wars. In fact, the issues that have long undermined the education programs of Arab military organizations are still the same today as they were ten years ago.
A Growing Interest for Military Education…
Admittedly new programs and entities across the region aiming at improving the tactical and strategic skills of Arab officers are growing. In 2009, Jordan created the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Centre, which has become a well-respected entity in its field. Algeria increased training initiatives with its neighbors (in particular, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Mali) to strengthen officers’ skills in counterterrorism operations. Mauritania has also become a hub for the training of officers in the Sahel region through the creation of a G5 Sahel Defense College in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states have all launched ambitious reforms of their military education in the past decade. In 2013, Qatar opened a new Joint Command and Staff College, and a few months later the UAE, Oman, and Bahrein created their own National Defense Colleges. Saudi Arabia is even more ambitious: under the leadership of crown prince Mohamed bin Salman, the Saudi ministry of defense initiated a vast project to create a defense university. The new organization would aggregate several institutions: a war college, a joint command and staff college, a strategic studies center, and a center for leadership development. Moreover, three Gulf countries (UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar) also started national conscription programs in the second half of the 2010s, which led them to create not only basic military training programs but also national security education courses aiming at shaping the culture of these new "citizen-soldiers".
Overall, this reflects an increased interest for military education in the Arab world. This phenomenon can be seen as the result of various causes. For instance, in North Africa, it is partly driven by the security implications of the wars in Libya and Mali and, more specifically, by the emphasis on counterterrorism in the Sahel area. In the Gulf, these new initiatives are motivated by the desire of local rulers to raise their strategic ambitions and to build a new national security elite able to fulfill them.
…But Old Approaches to Military Education
However, new challenges or new ambitions do not mean new approaches to military education. This is first evidenced by the fact that a large part of these initiatives still relies on the provision of Western support, and from the US in particular. For instance, American officers provide border management training to Tunisia, they support Jordanian military schools, and both the UAE and Saudi Arabia rely closely on cooperation with the US Department of Defense for their own reforms. The UAE Presidential Guard and the Saudi National Guard receive training respectively from the US Marine Corps and the US Army.
British influence is also significant, in particular in Qatar and Oman. The Qatar Joint Command and Staff College initially relied on a partnership with a faculty team detached by King's College in London. The courses delivered to Qatari officers were a slightly modified version of the advanced command and staff course that King's already provides to the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham. In Oman, the UK opened a new military base in 2018 with about a hundred of officers whose main goal, among others, is to support exercises and joint training activities with the Omani armed forces. Meanwhile, the G5 Sahel Defense College hosted by Mauritania relies on significant funding from France and Germany.
The Westernization Issue
This Westernization of Arab military education is not merely sustained, it is growing; and it even includes an organization like NATO which barely played any role prior to 2011. The NATO Defense College in Italy has been offering tailored courses for Middle Eastern audiences, while Kuwait opened a NATO-ICI Regional Center in 2017 that serves as a platform to deliver courses provided by NATO representatives to a Gulf audience. Meanwhile the NATO training and advisory mission in Iraq, initiated in 2018, currently accounts for up to 4 000 civilian and military staff based in Baghdad.
This enduring influence of the US and European militaries in the Arab world leads to fundamental issues. As mentioned, the Arab states’ need to train local militaries by outsourcing it to Western trainers is not a new phenomenon. For instance, the US military training mission to Saudi Arabia opened its office in Riyadh in 1952. As a result, it created systemic dependence on Western partners for education and training support. The fact that this support still exists in 2021 questions the ability of these countries to ever reach a sufficient level of autonomy in the education of their own forces.
Moreover, the import of Western military models using "off-the-shelf" courses and programs may in some cases engender tensions with the local environment. The reliance on US or British military education approaches creates a phenomenon of "military isomorphism", that is, the adoption by Arab militaries of fundamental concepts and ideas embraced by Western trainers, for instance the way Western advisors define national security and the very purpose of armed forces. This can openly clash with local military customs.
US and UK war colleges tend to emphasize notions such as critical thinking at the core of their learning process whereas Arab military institutions still rely on rote learning. This may not be a problem for tactical training that focuses on gaining technical skills, but it becomes a source of tension at the strategic command level. Typically, US military schools regularly engage into a critical examination of some of the US’ most recent military interventions (in particular, Iraq and Afghanistan). By contrast, Saudi and Emirati entities cautiously refrain from any substantial discussion of the war in Yemen.
There are of course exceptions to this dark appraisal. Countries like Algeria, Oman or Morocco built military colleges with a strong reputation for professionalism. In these cases, the build-up of their military education systems usually took a long time, and the implementation of the programs was closely led by local decision-makers, with Western advisors only occasionally intervening.
At the core, this also relates to the way military education is or is not part of a clear career path. In theory, military schools shape the trajectory of the best officers and enforce a culture of performance. However, this may vary widely across the Arab world, where armed forces remain in check by local leaders. In many cases, tensions still exist between this culture of performance and the principle of loyalty to the sovereign as the primary factor for officers' promotion. This transcends the field of military education as it questions the very relation between rulers and soldiers in the Arab world. Overall, the fact that civil-military relations are still a contentious issue nowadays in most of the countries in the region also explains why, in 2021, the landscape of Arab military education has not fundamentally changed from the past decade.