Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays selected for honorable mention, from Duraid Jalili of King’s College London.
This article is designed to explore the potential for a collaborative approach to strategic education in the Middle East, through the creation of a pan-Arab security and defence college. To achieve this, the essay provides an historical review of the national and multinational strategic defence college model, followed by an assessment of the social and political factors currently inhibiting defence coordination between Arab nations. The article concludes with recommendations on the potential format, demographic, and curriculum for such a college. It contends that, whilst such a college may not be immediately feasible due to social and political inhibitors, it is a strategic necessity in the long-term and one which is likelier to be achieved through blended learning.
National Defence Colleges have long played a formative role in the strategic education of senior security officials. Although the Imperial Defence College founded in 1927 (now known as the Royal College of Defence Studies) is often cited as the originator of the strategic-level college model, the study of strategy had already featured at academies such as the Centre des Hautes Etudes Militaires. Since their inception, the objective of such institutions has, in broad terms, been twofold: firstly, to educate an elite segment of officials from the military and civil service in the art of grand strategy and create a more integrated cross-government approach to strategic planning and national security, and, secondly, to generate alumni networks that can engage in informal diplomacy and even help coordinate crisis response activities.
To prepare students for positions of strategic leadership and the formulation of strategic policies, such institutions focus on educating their attendees in how to think rather than what to think. This involves broadening their awareness of the heterogeneous social, economic, political, technological, historical, environmental, and geographical factors that may impact and influence security strategies at the national and multinational level. It also involves using a broader and more interactive variety of teaching methods than traditionally seen in military education, including guest lectures from notable leaders and subject matter experts, seminar debates, field trips, extensive social networking, and personal thinking time (with a specific emphasis on strict non-attribution policies throughout).
In most cases attendance was (and remains) by invitation only, with officials selected or approved by the heads of their respective security services and government ministries. Although a range of institutions maintain an exclusively indigenous student demographic, throughout the twentieth century most colleges have sought to progressively expand the number of foreign nationals in attendance, in line with a shifting politico-military landscape defined by increasing interdependence between different nations. In this evolving environment, colleges and their strategic alumni networks are deemed as valuable soft power assets capable, among other things, of aiding democratisation in developing nations; enhancing interoperability and joint doctrine at the international level; transmitting domestic thinking styles to foreign leaders; exporting domestic pedagogies to foreign military colleges; influencing strategic decisions and conflicts in partner nations; and enhancing civil-military coordination for Critical National Infrastructures (i.e., assets such as electricity, telecommunications, water, agriculture, and health services which are deemed integral to the functioning of a society).
Unsurprisingly, as a means of ensuring force multiplication, influence and interoperability at lower cost, the multi-nationalisation of such national defence colleges was interspersed with the creation of dedicated multilateral colleges. The four key examples of these are the NATO Defense College (founded in 1951, to serve NATO member states), the Inter-American Defense College (founded in 1962, to serve members of the Organisation of American States), the Baltic Defence College (established in 1999 by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and the European Security and Defence College (founded in 2005, to provide blended learning courses for EU Member States and partner countries).
Through a mixture of direct collaboration and co-optation, this model for strategic-level defence education was replicated by militaries across the world. This included the creation of a wide range of colleges in Arab states, including the Egyptian National Defence College within the Nasser Academy of Higher Defence Studies (founded 1965), the Sudanese National Defence College (founded 1982), the Royal Jordanian National Defence College (founded 1986), the Tunisian Superior War College (founded 1996), the Syrian National Defence College (founded 2000), and the Moroccan Royal College of Higher Military Studies (founded 2002). Recently, a renewed emphasis on such institutions has been seen in the creation of the Iraqi National Defence College (founded 2012), the National Defense Colleges of the United Arab Emirates and Oman (both founded in 2014), and a range of collegiate discussions in various Gulf states on the creation of capstone and strategic leadership courses at the 1-star level.
Despite this renewed focus on strategic-level defence education within the region, one topic remains notably absent from both policy and academic discussions. Specifically, that of a multi-national Arab defence college, whether inter-governmentally funded institution in the style of a Baltic Defence College style or under the auspices of an organisation such as the Arab League or Gulf Cooperation Council. Inevitably, there are a broad range of logistical, financial, and social and political challenges involved in the creation and maintenance of any such college. However, the continued expansion of existing multi-national colleges in areas such as research output, curricular development, academic accreditation, attendee numbers, and alumni influence, has proven the multilateral college model to be both technically feasible and strategically beneficial. Indeed, this model is of heightened relevance in a contemporary security environment in which coalition operations and interagency collaboration are an increasingly integral element of both national and regional security.
Although proposals for a pan-Arab senior defence college were presented to the council of the Arab League in mid-2015 by senior military officials, there remains a notable lack of public debate or feasibility studies on the potential for such an institution. As this article shall contend, however, the benefits of a pan-Arab, strategic-level defence college are significant enough to warrant further consideration by Arab nations. To highlight this, the essay will provide an analysis of the current obstacles facing the creation of a pan-Arab college (with a specific focus on the socio-political challenges). This will be followed by an appraisal of the potential format, demographic and curricular focus for such a college. Although the current socio-political climate in the Middle East may not be conducive to the immediate creation of such an institution, the contention of this author is that the formation of some form of pan-Arab college (or, at the very least, increasingly significant inter-collegiate Memorandums of Understanding) is a strategic inevitability in the long-term. Thus, this essay seeks to provide a means of catalysing discussions on this potential area for capability development.
Inhibitors of Regional Collaboration
The Arab security landscape is often characterised as an inscrutably complex ecosystem, in which a bewildering array of centuries’ old tribal, religious, cultural, and economic affiliations, alliances, and enmities have led to a semi-permanent state of latent tension, active conflicts, and by-proxy influence operations, often involving hybrid strategies of misdirection and dissimulation. Financially, most major Arab governments and militaries possess the necessary resources to set aside a portion of funds for a jointly-sponsored multi-lateral college. Logistically, successful templates for such a college exist in the form of the aforementioned NATO Defense College, Inter-American Defense College, Baltic Defence College, and European Security and Defence College. Thus, social and political factors provide the predominant obstacle for the creation of a pan-Arab defence college.
The Arab security landscape is often characterised as an inscrutably complex ecosystem, in which a bewildering array of centuries’ old tribal, religious, cultural, and economic affiliations, alliances, and enmities have led to a semi-permanent state of latent tension, active conflicts, and by-proxy influence operations, often involving hybrid strategies of misdirection and dissimulation.
Although contemporary Arab political and monarchical leaders adhere to post-Westphalian concepts of sovereignty as regards their own territory, many have often held more fluid perspectives on the sovereignty of neighbouring states and non-interference in the domestic affairs of those states. This fluidity is informed and affected by issues such as the contentious Western orchestration of and continued involvement in territorial allocation (e.g., the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine), the overlapping of tribal groups and diasporic communities across national borders, state-sponsorship of trans-national terrorism, conflicting political and socio-economic objectives, and religious partisanship (often along Shia-Sunni lines, but also including other non-Muslim minorities). Indeed, in line with the geopolitical complexities inherent to the region it is at times more beneficial to analyse conflict zones in terms of sub-regional arenas rather than along national lines. This environment, alongside an historical fear of internal coups, has led to a lack of political trust from Arab leaders in the concept of a coordinated and interoperable security community, both at the multi-national level and the domestic inter-service level.
One possible reason why such a community has not evolved is the lack of a demonstrably unifying enemy or totalising conflict within the region’s recent history. The respective inaugurations of the NATO Defense College and the Inter-American Defense College, for example, were heavily influenced by World War Two, and the perceived need to enhance multi-national coalitions as a preventative measure for inter- and intra-continental defence. In addition to its cost-sharing benefits, the Baltic Defence College enhances strategic jointness for “residual problems associated with a large neighbour which are broadly common to the three participant states.”
The prospect of a modus vivendi between the U.S. and Iran in the Obama era may have had the potential to catalyse a “sense of community” and “viable security architecture” across the Gulf nations. However, it remains unclear how far the Trump presidency will impact upon the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) made in 2015. At the very least, increasing capabilities for state-sponsored information operations and cyber warfare will serve to further exacerbate existing tensions; as seen in recent accusations of Russian involvement in the diplomatic crisis with Qatar. Moreover, the historical divergence between Western forms of warfare and the more unconventional methods of warfare utilised by Arab insurgencies and wider forces reduces the potential for a totalising regional conflict. This combination of complex trans-national relations and pre-existing national defence colleges, along with a lack of unifying enemy or totalising conflict, provides a clear set of inhibitors for the creation of a pan-Arab college. Moreover, as noted by Foot, it should be seriously considered whether the multilateral college approach “is only made possible because a degree of regional security already exists, or whether in less benign circumstances—such an institution can help to create the conditions necessary to build regional peace and stability.”
Yet, whilst the notion of a pan-Arab college may seem doomed to the inevitable entropy engendered by socio-political infighting, this is not necessarily the case. As highlighted in the previous section, the continued popularity and expansion of the strategic-level defence college model is intrinsically linked to its role as a soft power asset that is capable of enhancing informal and mutually beneficial trans-national diplomacy and communication without overtly exacerbating tensions over issues such as politico-military neutrality, national sovereignty, and territorial disputes. Despite the lack of success seen in programmes for multilateral hard power assets in the Middle East, such as the ongoing stalemate surrounding the Joint Arab Force, there exist notable regional successes in the less sensitive areas of defence diplomacy and socio-economic collaboration. Guzansky, for example, has argued that bodies such as the GCC “have systematically increased cooperative measures in many ‘soft’ areas," despite the continued existence of “historical” and “interpersonal” rivalries, “disputes over command”, “differing strategic perceptions” and various contested territory across Gulf states. Similarly, the Arab League has achieved notable, albeit somewhat changeable, successes in areas such as economic development, joint UN cooperation, and relations with Israel, but has seen fewer gains on divisive politico-military subjects such as agreements on state sovereignties and territory. As argued as early as 1965 by MacDonald, the key challenge facing the Arab League’s ongoing success remains “the relative ability of member states of the Arab League to subordinate particularistic national goals to the common good.”
As an historically proven means of enhancing inter-state soft power links and politico-military relations, therefore, a multilateral defence college could provide a suitable forum for security and defence collaboration in the region. Indeed, whilst the creation of a pan-Arab security and defence college would be unlikely to result in immediate reductions in trans-national military tensions across the Middle East, it could present an important means of enhancing educational inclusivity, informal diplomatic networks, inter-cultural appreciation, strategic coordination, joint doctrine and crisis management between the region’s future politico-military leaders.
The models of the NATO, Inter-American, and Baltic defence colleges may be rooted in geopolitical contexts incompatible with those faced in the contemporary Middle East. However, in the European Security and Defence College (ESDC) we find a model that could be successfully adapted for the region. The ESDC provides a template capable of significantly enhancing coordinated strategic planning and collaboration between Arab politico-military leaders whilst broadly circumventing the region’s contemporary social, political, economic, logistical and cultural inhibitors. As I shall now argue, at the centre of this potential is the use of a blended learning format.
A Template for a Pan-Arab Security and Defence College
The potential success of any multilateral college is necessarily dependent upon its capacity to create a learning format, student demographic, curriculum and mission capable of balancing tangible and honest security discussions with trans-national logistical, economic, and socio-political sensitivities. In 2005 the European Union sought to achieve this balance, through a process of training needs analysis and curricular experimentation which led to the creation of a series of blended learning courses under the banner of the European Security and Defence College. These courses combine computer-aided distance learning, with in-person, on-site training at the various defence colleges run by its member states. This model provided the EU with a means of training and educating senior officials across its member states about its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as well as promoting the development of a pan-European security community and culture.
A range of socio-political, financial, and logistical benefits could be achieved through this blended learning format. Above all, it would circumvent the need for a fixed host nation for the college, thus bypassing potential status-driven, trans-national disagreements.
Despite its potential weaknesses in areas such as funding and coordination, the ESDC model represents an established template for blended learning which would be of direct relevance for a pan-Arab college. This format would provide students with a range of core modules related to regional and international security. At the start of each module, participants would undertake a period of online learning (e.g., one to two weeks), including readings, practical tests, and interactive case studies. At the end of this period, they would attend one of the region’s defence colleges, for a selection of lectures, syndicate debates, field trips, and social networking events. This system of remote learning followed by on-site discussions would then be replicated for each module. Evaluation of students could occur throughout the course, factoring in on-site assessment methods such as competency-based interviews, presentations, and student participation within seminars, as well as assessment methods achievable at distance such as essays, written tests, and engagement in local projects.
A range of socio-political, financial, and logistical benefits could be achieved through this blended learning format. Above all, it would circumvent the need for a fixed host nation for the college, thus bypassing potential status-driven, trans-national disagreements. To further reduce bias, each participating nation could designate a staff officer responsible for helping to develop the college mission and curriculum, and facilitate their own students’ participation. Such officers could be based remotely within their respective countries yet capable of travel for meetings and key events. This system would enhance institutional memory as well as provide participants with a local point of contact prior to, during, and after their course. Whilst this structure would enable the college to function without the need for a specific Commandant or President, participating nations could also choose to adopt a rotating presidency. This framework would also allow the college to be formed as part of a direct multi-lateral agreement between a relatively small set of Arab nations (to which more member states could be added in due course), or under the banner of a pan-Arab organisation such as the Arab League or Gulf Cooperation Council.
Although financial investment would not necessarily be a major inhibitor for a pan-Arab college, the blended learning format would provide direct savings for both wealthier and less-wealthy Arab nations. The lack of a central college campus would avoid duplication of facilities costs for those with existing defence colleges. The costs of accommodation and per diems would also be significantly reduced, thus enabling far greater access for less-wealthy nations. The main investment would be in the initial creation of an integrated eLearning system, the consultation required for curriculum development and travel costs for each on-site segment of the core modules. One corollary benefit of enabling nations to pool their resources for a blended learning programme is that funding could be allocated to the procurement and installation of computer networks in the defence colleges of those nations with less funds available for their own Virtual Learning Networks.
This format also helps to mitigate a second potentially sensitive challenge for a pan-Arab college: student demographic. At the heart of any such college would necessarily exist a conundrum over which nations should be allowed to attend. This would include the theoretical membership of rogue states such as Syria, states such as Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan currently experiencing ongoing internal or border conflicts, or states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that face multilateral censure for alleged participation in and sponsorship of terrorism. The use of alternative, rotating defence colleges for the on-site portion of the course would enable the college to circumvent certain cities or nations in times of heightened military or socio-political conflict, without needing to relocate the entire college infrastructure. Moreover, the online or distributed nature of the course would enable the college to provide different levels of access to specific documents and modules depending upon the current political scenario, or to entirely restrict access if required.
Restrictions on participation could be decided by a system of voting in which each member nation was allotted one vote. This capacity to enable the inclusion of various allied, non-aligned or semi-aligned states as observer nations for non-sensitive modules or courses, would also increase the potential for the college to be used as a means of enhancing educational inclusion and informal diplomatic networks with nations such as Iran or Israel, even at times of heightened regional stress or conflict. This policy would match those of other multi-national defence colleges, such as the openness towards Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Cuban students at the Inter-American Defense College. As seen in many pre-existing multinational and national defence colleges, the most likely worse-case scenario would be that nations with fraught politico-military relations would simply decline to fill their allotted space.
The final, and most important, aspect to ensure the adoption and implementation of such a college, would be its mission and curriculum. As we shall now consider, central to this would be a focus on the principle of security rather than defence. This ties in with the broad movement towards a more holistic concept of security being seen across many different nations, including most recently in the UK Government’s stated aim of creating a virtual National Security Academy, designed to act as a centralised hub by which its various security colleges may “share, develop and maintain critical knowledge and skills across the national security community, leading to greater coherence and common professional standards.” In addition to this, it provides a range of specific benefits for Arab nations.
The final, and most important, aspect to ensure the adoption and implementation of such a college, would be its mission and curriculum. As we shall now consider, central to this would be a focus on the principle of security rather than defence.
Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) is a self-evident priority for the Middle East and North Africa. In line with expanding population, climate conditions and energy intensive industries (such as oil extraction processes), the Middle East is predicted to become “the most energy-intensive region of the world by 2030.” Although many Gulf states are seeking to diversify their economies, fossil fuel exports still constitute a significant share of GDP, and recent tenders by countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE for large-scale renewables facilities will increase the number of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) facilities vulnerable to attack. Although energy is one of the most conspicuous challenges for regional CIP, there exist equally consequential threats for facilities involved in water desalination, critical manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, and transportation. These threats will inevitably intensify with rising global temperatures and more extreme weather conditions, alongside increasingly complex cyber-attacks and evolving hybrid warfare tactics from state, state-sponsored, and non-state actors.
In focusing upon security and CIP specifically, rather than more traditional concepts of national defence, a pan-Arab college could provide a means of creating both short- and long-term strategic collaboration on the development and security of CNI infrastructures. A corollary benefit of this coordination would be to increase civil service, military, police, and private sector relations both intra- and inter-nationally across the region. Although a focus on security rather than defence would entail the same nuanced discussions on the extent to which sensitive information would be made accessible to course participants, it could provide a less politically sensitive subject area in the short term given the complex cultural, political and economic contexts currently shaping cross-border conflicts between key nations within the region. Curriculum development would, of course, be defined by a formative training needs analysis process. However, it is possible to envisage a range of key modules or focus areas for a core course, which would be both beneficial and politically uncontroversial for participating nations, including:
Relevant regional and international governance and security organisations and mechanisms (including specific missions, powers, capabilities, and history of engagement);
Contemporary and future threats facing CNI and wider regional security (including social, economic, political, technological, and environmental factors);
Capability development, crisis management and resilience strategies (including methods of enhancing intra- and inter-state civil-military and military-military coordination and capability development).
In addition to the core strategic course for future military, government and private sector leaders, there would of course exist the potential for such a college to develop a far broader range of either blended or fully distance learning programmes. Such courses could be used to enhance doctrinal and/or socio-political coordination across mid-level officials involved in areas relevant to national and regional security, and even influential monarchical, religious, tribal and defence industry leaders. This could include focused programmes on topics such as counter-terrorism, environmental threats, military ethics, and civil-military relations. Although officers from non-Arab militaries could be integrated within the core courses provided by the college, there would also exist the potential for dedicated courses for relevant foreign officials (e.g., defence attachés or foreign area officers dedicated to the region); allowing them to gain greater intercultural awareness and understanding of regional dynamics, history, and politics from a wholly Arab perspective. This would also allow less wealthy Arab states to gain links with future regional figureheads for foreign defence diplomacy, without the heightened expense of sending their own officers to foreign defence colleges.
As with many national and multilateral colleges, these core education aims could be complemented in due time by the development of policy recommendations and thought leadership publications, bringing to bear the accumulated experience and research expertise of staff and alumni. Taking all of these contexts and factors into account, it is possible to envision the role that a pan-Arab security college could occupy in preparing senior individuals in the development and implementation of strategic-level security policies, and the creation of a pan-Arab security community capable of coordinated knowledge sharing, skills development and crisis management.
National and multinational defence colleges have long provided a significant method of enhancing the strategic thinking skills and inter-cultural networks of national leaders, to better prepare them for developing and implementing national security doctrines and policies, and coordinating crisis management and informal diplomatic efforts. The creation of a pan-Arab security and defence college could provide a mutually-beneficial means for Arab nations to deliver coordinated, strategic-level education for a community of future Arab leaders and allied officers with regional influence. Although the current socio-political climate may seem to preclude such an institution, there exist relevant blended learning templates by which such a college could account for and circumvent a broad range of regionally-specific socio-political, logistical and financial inhibitors. Whilst national defence colleges in the Middle East may wish to defer to inter-collegiate Memorandums of Understanding as a means of collaboration, this would ultimately be disadvantageous to poorer Arab nations and therefore less likely to affect the coordinated community required for holistic security strategies in an era marked by increasing intra-national interdependencies. Ultimately, as seen in the creation of a significant number of national and multinational strategic-level defence colleges, the formation of any such institution would require a senior official of high standing and influence within the region to actively advocate such a concept and place strong political pressure on relevant political and monarchical officials across key nations. Although such a college would be unlikely to result in immediate reductions in trans-national military tensions within the Middle East, it could play a pivotal role in laying the necessary foundations for long-term strategic integration and security cooperation across the Arab world.
Duraid Jalili is a Doctoral Candidate at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. His research areas include professional military education, soft power, defence engagement, and the impact of culture and inter-cultural skills in the military. Prior to starting a Doctorate he worked in the private sector as an organiser and consultant for military training courses, lectures, conferences and exhibitions, engaged with such organisations as the U.S. Military Training Mission, USAFCENT, Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces, Brazilian Navy, UAE Armed Forces, Nigerian Armed Forces, and UK MoD.
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 Gray, T.I.G. (ed). (1977). The Imperial Defence College and the Royal College of Defence Studies: 1927 - 1977. Edinburgh: HMSO Press, pg. 66f.
 The academic literature surrounding senior defence colleges is respectively scarce and dominated by historical accounts of colleges’ inception, mission and development based upon archival sources. Despite this, broader multi-institutional analyses of such colleges are available in Davis (1974) and Peterson (2012). Analyses of the strategic soft power and diplomatic benefits of military education are also available in Cope (1995), Atkinson (2014) and Jalili (2015).
 Despite its focus on the concept of a pan-Arab college, some arguments put forward within this essay could well be applied to the creation of a multi-national college in Africa, Central Asia or Pacific-Asia. Indeed, given the politico-military influence of organisations such as the African Union and the continued impact of cross-border and climate-related conflict within the region, Africa may be deemed as an especially relevant environment for the development of such a college. As with the pan-Arab concept, there exist a range of regionally specific socio-political, logistical and financial issues for any one of these alternative multi-national colleges, including the relative disparity of wealth between potential member nations, language barriers, and regional preferences for bilateral versus multilateral defence agreements.
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