Workshop | Security Assistance in the Middle East 2011-2021: Unpacking an international practice

April 20, 2021 @ 9:30 am – 5:00 pm
Online on Zoom


Security Assistance – foreign actors training and equipping security forces in another country – has become the main form of engagement by external actors in the Middle East since at least the Arab uprisings. Now, 10 years later, security assistance cannot be considered merely a tool to obtain strategic objectives, but is itself a site of competition, collusion and potential collision. Comparative and interdisciplinary explorations are needed to gain a more comprehensive and critical view of the practice, including of its drivers, processes and effects.

This workshop takes stock of the practice of security assistance by exploring cross-cutting themes of relevance to the Middle East region. It is notable that security assistance is practiced across ideological divides and strategic cultures. This includes security assistance by Western states, regional players (Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states) and global contenders (Russia and China), in addition to international organisations (NATO, the EU). It is a key feature in conflict contexts, such as in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in more stable contexts, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia. The Workshop will bring together scholars, policy analysts and practitioners of security assistance in the Middle East and aims to open up new lines of dialogue by rearticulating the terms of the debate so to bridge hitherto fragmented communities of research and practice.

Panel 1. Drivers: What drives the reliance on Security Assistance in the Middle East?

This panel will explore the motives and objectives of SA providers, and develop tools to better describe and analyse this international practice. The field is divided between those who see the reliance on SA as a reaction to the statebuilding failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who see it as a continuation of the Cold War proxy war phenomenon. Given the widespread practice of externalising the burden of warfare by both old and new actors, and the intensity of such undertakings in composite spaces, a fresh look at the drivers of SA is due.

The panel will explore a range of questions, including but not limited to:

  • What are the principal aims of SA programs? How are these aims articulated?
  • What legal constraints and public accountability mechanisms exist? How does political systems matter?
  • How do political, economic and normative considerations interact and compete when policy makers debate and authorise SA provision?
  • Are alternatives discussed adequately and competently in policy circles?
  • Are there different drivers for small states and major powers? If so, what are they?
  • Who drives the dispatch of Security Assistance? Are they mostly political or are also other actors influential, e.g. militaries, the arms industry, IOs, etc? What are the incentives structures shaping these influences?
  • Bottom-up drivers: How effective and relevant are lobby groups in channelling SA to specific actors?

Panel 2. Processes: How is Security Assistance delivered?

There is no shortage of catchy and politicised terminology describing the practice of militarily supporting forces in another state. Proxy wars, hybrid warfare, remote warfare, shadow wars, everywhere wars, and state-sponsored terrorism, to name but a few. But what modality of delivery characterises SA in the Middle East over the past decade? Is it possible to discern some key and common characteristics about materiality, knowledge and networks, which may aid our understanding of this practice?

Questions of particular relevance:

  • How are decisions made: what is delivered how and to whom?
  • How do international-local negotiations locally take place? At what level of command? What type of expertise do they draw on to successfully negotiate?
  • How is knowledge transmitted through training, capacity building and mentoring programs?
  • Is knowledge a commodity that takes on a life of its own locally?
  • How are networks between external and local security professionals cultivated and maintained in SA contexts?
  • How do weapons, infrastructure and artefacts enter into and shape local contexts?

Panel 3. Effects: How can we build better frameworks for measuring effects of security Assistance?

Understanding effects of SA is complicated by its often non-transparent nature, geopolitical macro-frames, and problems of causality in the social sciences more broadly. Given the widespread practice, it is however time to more systematically analyse effects – beyond measures of effectiveness. This panel will aim to expose effects on governance, state-society relations and stability, while also including critical analyses of strategic effectiveness.

Questions addressed in this panel include:

  • Are there demonstrable differences in providing SA to states vs non-state actors?
  • Are there demonstrable effects and recent data on the duration of wars as the SA density increases?
  • What are the consequences of directing SA to specific groups on these groups’ capacity to devote resources to peace, stability and governance?
  • How does SA affect sovereignty, both in provider and recipient states?
  • Which indicators can best measure training and capacity building?
  • What are the risks of direct confrontation between regional and global powers in SA contexts?

Final roundtable:

The final roundtable will feature a high level policy speaker with operational expertise in Security Assistance programs in the Middle East, as well as selected participants from the Workshop, and advance the core theme of the Workshop, i.e. the Drivers, Processes and Effects of Security Assistance in the Middle East.


Scientific organiser: 

Simone Tholens (Senior Lecturer Cardiff University/Visiting Fellow Middle East Directions, European University Institute)

Simone Tholens is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University, and co-director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Societies. She is currently a Visting Fellow at the Middle East Directions/European University Institute on a Leverhulme Trust International Academic Fellowship, as well as an Associate Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS Europe. Simone Tholens’ main research interest within International Relations are post-liberal interventions, security assistance, bordering processes, and materiality of global war practices, as well as theories of contestation. She has published on these themes in International Affairs, International Studies Persepctives, Journal of International Relations and Development, and Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. She is the co-editor (w/ Raffaella A. Del Sarto, 2020, University of Michigan Press) of “Resisting Europe: Practices of Contestation in the Mediterranean Middle East” and her current project and monograph is called “Assembling Security Assistance: Knowledge, Networks and Materiality of a Global Practice”.