The Layali Al-Qaisariyah festival in Al-Hofuf, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, is an illuminating example of how the kingdom's art and entertainment agenda manifests outside the major cities.
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On April 11, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of defense, Prince Khalid bin Salman, attended the graduation ceremony of military cadets from the King Abdulaziz Military College. Like many others throughout the region, this style of military college is new for the Gulf Arab states. The education and training provided at such institutions focus on strategic training and the development of combat skills of the trainees, diverting from the tactical training typically provided by military schools in the Gulf. In most cases, these new colleges have been mirroring many military colleges in the West, particularly those of the United States.
In implementing these new curriculums, many Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan, have been working with the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, or NESA, a preeminent U.S. Department of Defense institution. NESA’s mission is to enhance security cooperation between the United States and countries in the Near East and South Asia. The program looks beyond equipment and tactical skills in military defense, prioritizing human resource development. NESA leads many programs and workshops to develop those human resources and, in collaboration with foreign governments, establishes curriculums for military universities and war colleges that focus on teaching strategic and operational skills.
New Partnerships With Old Friends
The Saudi Ministry of Defense has been working with NESA since 2012, in both Washington and Riyadh. In 2017, the Saudi ministry initiated a new agreement with NESA collaborating on strategies to enhance Saudi military institutions. This agreement was part of Saudi Arabia’s broader initiative to strengthen its domestic defense industry. Also, the Saudi Ministry of Defense hosted the World Defense Show in March, has signed contracts to secure various different types of ammunition for the Saudi military, has reflected increased local production and the anticipated completion of several defense deals in its military budget, and established the National Academy of Military Industries to reach the target goal of localizing more than 50% of the kingdom’s military expenditure.
While previous efforts were focused on financial investment in the Saudi military, the Ministry of Defense’s agreement with NESA works to enhance the training and education of Saudi military personnel. “The Saudi military was doing okay before they started working with NESA,” a source familiar with the project stated, “they just wanted their military to move up to the gold standard and get international accreditation.” In January 2020, the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding to assist in the development of Saudi professional military institutions, including infrastructure and class curriculums at war colleges and military universities.
Saudi Arabia’s goal for its defense sector is to set up four military institutions: a joint command and staff college, a war college, a research institute, and a leadership development center. According to David Lamm, NESA’s deputy director, NESA had agreed to provide a plan for establishing these institutions and recommend courses to be taught at the war college. The goal for both parties is a completely independent, internationally accredited Saudi military university. Once this is achieved, NESA has agreed to continue to operate as a “trusted advisor” to the Saudi military, providing resources and other forms of aid, such as training assistance and course instructors, when necessary.
On February 8, the Strategic Implementation Office – the design team comprised of staff from NESA and the Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College – met to provide the Saudi Ministry of Defense with a comprehensive plan to establish the Saudi Arabian National Defense University, or SANDU. A few weeks later, the Strategic Implementation Office presented the final design of SANDU, which included a joint command and staff college, war college, leadership development center, and strategic studies center. In March, NESA hosted the Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Washington, D.C. so members could collaborate freely with U.S. professional military education experts on accreditation, facilities, research, educational programs, and university governance. Additionally, the U.S. military has been working with the Saudi military in various training exercises, such as tests of “combat readiness,” air force exercises, and navy training. These joint training sessions are also often attended by the militaries of neighboring countries, such as Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.
The Future of U.S.-Saudi Military Relations
A “line of operation in the war of ideas,” is what a source familiar with the program called the project between NESA and the Saudi Ministry of Defense. Although the agreement with NESA was signed in 2020, the United States and Saudi Arabia have long been partners. However, there have been tensions over recent years. President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s distance from the Saudi royal family, brought on in part by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi involvement in Yemen, has further complicated the U.S.-Saudi relationship, creating a standstill in their diplomatic relations.
Closer U.S. military collaboration with Saudi Arabia brings up questions regarding further military involvement in the Middle East, at a time when there is domestic political pressure to avoid further entanglements in the region. A continuation of military involvement might result in backlash from both the U.S. and Middle East public. There is also the concern of appearing to be approving of Saudi behavior, particularly Saudi actions in Yemen, as accusations of human rights violations have been levied against the kingdom.
Despite these headwinds, both parties seem to be focused on maintaining the relationship. In May, Khalid bin Salman met with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who reaffirmed Biden’s commitment to “help Saudi Arabia defend its territory.” The two discussed ways to develop and strengthen the joint cooperation within the shared vision of both states, a reminder that despite any headwinds, there remains a strong bilateral interest in key lines of effort, such as security cooperation and training. There have also been plans made for future meetings between two high-level Saudi delegations and their U.S. counterparts in mid-June. The U.S. administration is also working to schedule the first meeting between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
These diplomatic moves have occurred amid ongoing Saudi concerns about the United States’ commitment to the region and aim to address misunderstandings between the two countries regarding each other’s strategic interests and diplomatic intentions. Although the Saudi Ministry of Defense has been working with NESA, a U.S. government entity, it remains unclear whether the Saudis view this agreement as a government-to-government relationship, as NESA does, or if they understand it to be a business relationship, as many of their previous development projects across various state sectors have been. This disconnect and related issues have put the project on hold for the time being, despite previous progress. While the plans have been developed and the maps have been drawn, no further action has been taken to implement this project, as each side seeks clarifications from the other of their long-term visions and roles within this military partnership.
Proponents of this project see its continuation as beneficial for both parties. From the U.S. side of the partnership, enhancing Saudi military institutions will help enable a regional partner to secure and defend its own territory, so that the responsibility for regional defense will be taken on more fully by U.S. allies. Further, strengthening military cooperation with Saudi Arabia may help deter the kingdom from pursuing a closer relationship with Russia. For the Saudis, working with NESA grants their military institutions the opportunity to gain international accreditation, elevate their international standing, and facilitate the development of their domestic defense industry, in line with Vision 2030.
The status of the NESA-SANDU project represents in microcosm the present state of U.S.-Saudi relations. The contrasting perceptions of the two countries’ roles in and the long-term visions for the project, as well as perceptions regarding its ensuing halt, are emblematic of the misunderstandings resulting from the prickly state of U.S.-Saudi relations at the leadership level. Current tensions notwithstanding, this relationship is long established and extensive, despite any uncertainties in the current phase. The degree and pacing of progress for this project, because of the multiple intersections of security cooperation and broader bilateral collaboration implicit in the venture, is likely to serve as a useful indicator of the future of U.S.-Saudi relations.
Sussan Saikali is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Her primary research focus is identity politics and the effects of sectarianism on political attitudes and behaviors in the Middle East as well as the spillover of sectarianism in the Middle Eastern diaspora population in the West.
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