Table of Contents

Over the last decade, many Arab states have been facing institutional crises as stark social inequalities and eroded state capacity have paved the way for contested political legitimacy. At the same time, the crisis of the Arab state has intersected with a series of events that have occurred since the 2010s in the Middle East and internationally. The 2011 Arab uprisings and subsequent civil wars have profoundly reshaped security institutions. Power competition between Middle Eastern states and global powers’ intermeshing in the region have added another layer to an already divided landscape. These evolving power dynamics have forged a new security mosaic in the Arab world that deeply affects security sectors and civil-military relations.

Myriad causes have accelerated the Arab security transformation: the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed Islamic State; the bolstering of Iranian proxies and allies in the Middle East; the real and perceived U.S. disengagement from the region; the gradual penetration of Russia and China; the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic; the Abraham Accords; the implications of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, comprising its effects on geopolitics, energy, and food security; and widespread debt crises and inflation. Security sectors will also be increasingly affected by shocks including the looming end of the oil era, climate change, and the rise of new technologies like artificial intelligence. In such a context, security sectors are mirroring state capacity and cohesion. This new security mosaic is the outcome of different paths: multiple centers of political-military power (such as in Yemen and Libya); segmented security landscapes (like in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria); top-down reforms (such as states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC); authoritarian downturns (in Egypt and Tunisia); and authoritarian restructuring (in Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan). In all these cases, security sectors and civil-military relations are dealing with changing power dynamics in the state, as well as with and between regional and international players. The current scenario reveals new actors and power balances.

Transformations in Armed Forces and Armed Groups

The regional transformations generated since the 2011 Arab uprisings have led to a deep evolution in Arab armed forces, as well as in the armed groups that have proliferated due to widespread state fragmentation and collapse.

Eleonora Ardemagni
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at ISPI, the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, with ten years of experience as an analyst on Yemen, the Gulf monarchies, and armies and armed groups in the Arab world. She is a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations-ASERI.

One trend of the post-2011 security mosaic is that most defense structures no longer primarily rely on armies. In reshaped defense structures, the army is no longer the military pivot, and in security structures, police forces are less central. In states with multiple power centers and segmented security landscapes, eroded state legitimacy and internal contestation lead to constrained sovereignty or even institutional collapse.

Consequently, remnants of regular armies and police forces are increasingly complemented by or coexist with armed groups. These armed groups have emerged from the battlefield (bottom-up) or were established by governments as auxiliaries (top-down). They play a fundamental role in the survival of the state military and its varied interests (political, economic, social, and religious). For example, in Yemen, a large part of the southern forces were organized by the recognized Yemeni government and the UAE to counter the Houthi movement’s military penetration into southern regions. But, over time, the southern forces became institutionalized groups (such as the Security Belt Forces and the Hadhrami Elite Forces) that supported only formally the interior ministry or the army. Conversely, the Presidential Protection Brigades were created by former interim president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to protect personal and presidential buildings.

In states with stronger institutional capacities, governments tend to complement the armies and police forces with other coercive entities, such as militarized police/gendarmerie or elite units. This setup forges agile tools for internal security that can also be useful for external purposes. In the first case, militarized police can rapidly become a deployment force able to cope with public order management. For example, Jordan’s Darak forces (officially the General Directorate of Gendarmerie) were established in 2008 and also fulfil a social cohesion function, allowing Jordanians of Palestinian descent to enlist. In the second case, elite units are expeditionary forces that receive highly specialized training and equipment. This is the case for the Presidential Guard of the UAE, established in 2011 and deployed in Yemen in 2015–2019 as part of the Saudi-led coalition.

As the importance of armies has decreased, the centrality of armed groups has conversely risen in the Arab region. In Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, today’s armed groups can no longer be identified simply as hybrid forces. The hybrid model—where regular and irregular security forces coexist, cooperate, or even merge—has been key to understanding the complex forms of security provision that have emerged in the Arab world, especially after 2011. To a certain extent, the critical hybrid approach to armed actors and orders has been gradually incorporated into mainstream analysis and policymaking, acknowledging the limits of state-centered considerations. However, the fragmentation and, later, the informal and then legalized hybridization between segments of the armies and armed actors have shaped new military entities that go a step further than hybridity. These entities can be framed as regenerated military forces. Regeneration here refers to the outcome of an ongoing process that includes, in many cases, formal integration of fighters and groups in armies’ ranks. Today, military forces differ from previous hybrid umbrellas formed in the first phase of civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, as well as in Iraq post-2014.

Regenerated military forces are governance-oriented and play a significant role in welfare provision at the local level and in the illegal and informal economy. These forces lack an agreed-upon, unified chain of command, blending the armies’ hierarchical structure with the decentralized, horizontal organization of bottom-up groups. Regenerated forces combine military capabilities with militarized police tasks, thus contributing to the erosion of boundaries between internal and external duties, boundaries that were also corroded by the increased influence of external state actors.

To further complicate things, governments have gradually provided top-down recognition to some armed groups, thus offering institutional legitimacy to forces that acquired popular legitimacy from the battlefield. In Yemen, the Presidential Leadership Council appointed three prominent leaders who were directly or indirectly tied to armed groups among its eight members: Aidarous al-Zubaidi of the Southern Transitional Council (whose affiliated armed groups control many southern governorates), Tareq Saleh of the National Resistance forces, and Abdulrahman Abu Zara’a al-Muharrami of the Giants Brigades. In Libya, the Presidential Council of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord appointed Abdel Ghani al-Kikli (also known as Ghneiwa), leader of the armed group Abu Salim Central Security Force, as head of the new Stability Support Authority (which reports directly to the president). Therefore, as hybrid actors permeate state institutions and armies are consistently restaffed through the integration of former fighters and groups, the concept of hybridity itself is overcome by facts, looks aged, and must be revisited, as suggested here with the adoption of regenerated military forces.

In some countries, armies have fragmented and armed groups have proliferated. But in others, the perception of the army as a national symbol has strengthened, and conscription has returned (see figure 1). In some Arab countries, the army is enhancing its public role, with an implicit revision of civil-military relations. This is a top-down strategy to shape patriotism and national identity in the UAE and Qatar and tighten social cohesion in Jordan and Morocco, while in Tunisia it is the outcome of changing political balances. Many Arab countries such as Qatar (in 2013) and the UAE (in 2014) have introduced for the first time compulsory military service for male citizens. Kuwait (in 2017), Morocco (in 2019), and Jordan (in 2020) have reintroduced conscription, although in Jordan’s case the draft is limited to males aged twenty-five to twenty-nine who are unemployed. For the GCC states, conscription doesn’t have a strict military purpose but rather a pedagogic one: instilling social cohesion, civic responsibility, and a sense of duty in times of socioeconomic transformation. For the UAE and Qatar, conscription is a cultural tool to forge a stronger national identity; as both Abu Dhabi and Doha underwent a late-state formation, they have demographically young societies in which nationals are a minority at home. In Morocco and Jordan, conscription is a strategy to mitigate unemployment. However, Moroccan authorities have also stressed the nation-building intent, emphasizing the need “to promote patriotism” and “the correlation between the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

The case of Tunisia is quite different. Despite adopting a neutral stance, the Tunisian army has gradually strengthened its operational role since 2011—and has also tripled its budget—shifting away from its traditionally neutral policy. During the 2017 protests, the army was unprecedentedly deployed to protect critical infrastructures vis-à-vis Tunisians who took to the streets. It has stepped up its involvement in counterterrorism and border security. Then, the army was at the forefront of implementing public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. But President Kais Saied’s authoritarian downturn since July 2021 has represented a turning point for the army, paving the way for a subtle but constant increase of its political weight. Obeying the presidential order, the army deployed outside the closed parliament and protected the president’s building; meanwhile, civilians are often prosecuted in military courts, mostly for alleged crimes of opinions.

Currently, the army’s social cohesion role is unthinkable in countries that are deeply divided at the political level. Moreover, many security sectors are also financially unsustainable, and security personnel don’t receive regular, fair salaries. In Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, state security sectors are affected by a deep financial crisis, in terms of budget and salaries. National currencies’ collapse and inflation have worsened an already precarious situation: These states are no longer able to pay fair wages to soldiers and police officers, nor to do so on a regular basis. For instance, after the Syrian pound’s devaluation, the salary of soldiers in the country now stands below the poverty line, so many of them also work as agricultural laborers or receive food support in deployment areas. Unpaid soldiers’ protests are frequent in Syria and Yemen. This adds to deep-seated structural issues in the security sectors such as politicization, cronyism, and corruption.

Unequal economic dynamics are also developing in territories held by armed groups, affecting their relationships with local communities. Most armed groups have indeed opted to reproduce former state mechanisms, adopting what I define as armed neopatrimonialism. Since the 1960–1970s, neopatrimonialism—the practice of governing through the arbitrary distribution of wealth—has plagued post-colonial Arab states and their unequal modernization paths, leading to the fall of many regimes in 2011. In neopatrimonial states, revenues were arbitrarily distributed by rulers in exchange for loyalty through formal institutions and personal informal networks, with huge repercussions for social inequalities and corruption. However, neopatrimonial practices are showing great continuity and adaptability in post-2011 Arab states. In territories under their control, armed groups are reproducing, on a smaller scale, neopatrimonial mechanisms through interactions with formal institutions and local populations.

Armed neopatrimonialism is most often carried out by warlords who rule territory through personal, informal, and lucrative logics of power—the same logics that were previously applied, on a larger scale, by authoritarian state leaderships through formal institutions. In Libya, General Khalifa Haftar and his sons Saddam and Khaled (respectively the informal commanders of the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade and of the Libyan National Army’s 106th Brigade), have shaped a tribal patrimonial network in Cyrenaica. Such networks can also be seen at play in Yemen as the officials of the armed group–based governorates of Marib, Hadhramawt, and Mahra are developing personal wealth networks through the appropriation of revenues—from energy in Marib and Hadramawt and from customs duties at ports and crossing points in Mahra—“without any effective control” by the Central Bank in Aden.

These phenomena emphasize the rising multitasking nature of armed groups, which now play many roles in society. In countries with collapsed or fractured armies, volunteerism has become the predominant form of recruitment. Volunteers join armed groups for different reasons including enhanced economic outcomes, territorial belonging, ideology, and social identity. Often, armed groups are largely homogenous geographically, ethnically, and religiously. As armed groups proliferate, armies are paradoxically turning in some countries into “subnational entities” centered around community and social representation, thus losing their cohesion role. In many Arab countries, armed groups have also gradually become economic, social, and political actors, playing direct or indirect roles in education and religious bureaucracies: alongside fighting activities, they are multitasking.

In this way, warlords have not only increased their political legitimacy vis-à-vis local populations and external players, but also, they have contributed to the blurred boundaries between the civilian and military spheres. As a result, it may no longer be possible to talk about civil-military relations in fractured states, as armed groups perform multiple roles contemporarily. For instance, in Iraq, most of the armed groups belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), legalized in 2016, have transformed from simply nonstate armed actors to multifaceted holders of territory and providers of local governance. This trend has occurred without solving the hybrid dilemma, where forces that are formally part of the regular security sector but operate autonomously, exploiting their legal standing.

Finally, to cope with rising hybrid threats, many Arab states are modernizing and strengthening their navies, developing a sea power 2.0. In this context, navies, naval bases, and asymmetric maritime warfare are increasingly important. The goal is not only to secure coasts and infrastructure (such as shallow/brown littoral waters), but it is also to project naval power in the overseas (blue-water capabilities). This projection of power involves opening new naval bases and enlarging existing bases, as well as promoting joint or multinational maritime drills to strengthen expertise and interoperability (see figure 2).

In some cases, this effort isn’t strictly related to national security but rather to national prestige. In the Red Sea, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are enhancing maritime cooperation. This is especially triggered by Riyadh’s Vision 2030, which involves development on Saudi Arabia’s west coast including post-oil economic projects like the smart city called NEOM and investments in tourism capacity. Red Sea maritime cooperation is also triggered by increased oil exports from the Saudi terminal in Yanbu, built to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. This increase, combined with an upgraded attention to security, has multiplied threats to coastal, oil, and trade security.

Since the war in Yemen began in 2015, maritime security has deteriorated in the Red Sea and in the Bab el-Mandeb choke point, arguably due to destabilizing activities by Tehran. Initially limited to ground insurgencies and guerrilla warfare, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, also known as pasdaran) and Iranian-affiliated armed groups have gradually developed air and maritime asymmetric warfare capabilities with drones, missiles, and waterborne improvised explosive devices. This is the case with Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s speedboats and unmanned remote-controlled submarines, as well as the Houthis’ waterborne improvised explosive devices, all of which can hijack operations and sea mines. The Mediterranean Sea and the southern Red Sea could easily become flashpoints.

Transformations in Security Sectors’ Patterns

These transformations have occurred not only for armed forces and armed groups but also for security sectors such as the ways they are structured and integrated in society and their relationships with external state powers. For one, security governance now tends to rely on multiple players. Despite stark differences between countries, security governance often involves at least two actors in addition to the traditional role played by the army. In some cases, central state institutions are not able to secure the sovereign control of a given territory (bottom-up fragmentation), while in others, central state institutions opt for institutional duplication (top-down fragmentation) to counterbalance forces and maximize power. In socially divided countries, security governance develops a network structure: It is localized and decentralized, with some armed groups holding and ruling a territory in a horizontal way, according to the shifting lines of deployment areas. In Yemen, for instance, Shabwa Governorate was co-controlled until July 2022 by army units, tribal militias affiliated with the Islah party—rallying the Muslim Brotherhood and a Salafi segment—and the Islah-loyalist special security forces of the governorate. In August 2022, these forces were militarily defeated and replaced in security governance by the local Shabwa Defense Forces and the Giants Brigades coming from the Yemeni western coast. Both groups are secessionists and backed by the UAE.

In cohesive countries, such as the GCC countries, forms of institutional fragmentation are instead implemented top-down to further centralize security governance, thus protecting the status quo. This occurs, for instance, in Kuwait, where the army staffs many contract soldiers and is counterbalanced by the National Guard in which only citizens can serve. In Bahrain, the Bahrain Defence Force and the National Guard both deal with regime protection, although in different ways. Also, in states where the armed forces play a leading role, and in which the army still stands at the center of the defense structure, other armed players can be involved from above in security governance. For instance, local tribal militias in Sinai are financially and materially backed by the Egyptian army to perform military operations—independently or as the army’s auxiliaries—to quell insurgencies in the peninsula.

As more and more new players compete for security roles, security sector reform and governance (SSR/G) has become more politicized, competitive, and externally driven. SSR/G is always a political process despite the technical nature of its operations, which aim to enhance the provision of state and human security in order to create a secure and stable environment. In divided countries, these competing projects produce segmented forms of SSR/G in the territory, depending on the external states that try to influence the process, further reducing prospects of (re)construction for national security sectors. The main risk to the effectiveness and national cohesion of a reform stems from its politicization: this trend especially emerges in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon. On SSR/G, Western players mainly focus on medium-to-long-term state and institutional (re)building, working to comply with the rule of law and good governance principles. Conversely, non-Western players pursue short-to-medium-term stabilization goals mainly for geostrategic gains, dealing directly with local armed groups through train-and-equip programs. Non-Western players also display differentiated patterns of security assistance.

Iran follows a network approach vis-à-vis local armed groups: Tehran stands at the center of interconnected armed groups that share (although with nuances) quite convergent ideologies, common regional threat perceptions, and similar operative goals in the Middle East. Examples abound, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Syrian militias and Iraq’s Hashds. Houthis in Yemen remain the most external ring of the Iranian armed constellation. The UAE, Türkiye, and Russia have opted for a pyramidal approach with respect to armed groups, with an adjacent focus on contractors and private military companies. For instance, the Emirati Armed Forces directly organized territorially based armed groups in the southern regions of Yemen; in Syria and Libya, the Turkish-backed forces were placed under Türkiye’s command on the ground; and the Russian command in Syria directly crafted military formations or integrated irregular groups into the local army.

The presence of so many players taking on roles in security assistance emphasizes how power and security relations have become more regionalized, meaning driven by regional players. This is mostly related to two interconnected dynamics. First, the United States has reduced its political engagement and military presence in the area (and, to a lesser extent, in the Gulf), while neither Russia, China, nor the European Union is able and willing to play the role of security provider. Second, since 2011, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Türkiye, and Qatar have followed ambitious foreign policies, using military ventures to gain leverage abroad for power-politics purposes. From the Gulf monarchies’ perspective, this strategy aims at security autonomy prompted by Washington’s perceived retrenchment. In the past years, Gulf monarchies have not only invested in military hardware and expensive procurement but have also developed local expertise in the defense industry and arms maintenance.

This adds to investments in military education and training, for instance with the opening of national defense colleges and academies and the proliferation of thinks tanks in GCC states that analyze security and regional issues. The shaping of an emergent endogenous order in the Middle East, backed by the United States, builds upon the Abraham Accords’ framework, with Israel and the UAE as the main axes in terms of foreign policy and military capabilities. This axis also encompasses Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, the other states that signed normalization agreements with Israel. However, the Abraham Accords’ security purview extends beyond signatory states: this is outlined, for instance, by the participation of Saudi Arabia and Oman in the 2022 U.S.-led maritime drill in the Red Sea that also involved Israel.

Implications and Outlooks: What Threatens Arab Security Sectors’ Sustainability

Threats to the sustainability of Arab security sectors mainly come from institutional and political fragmentation, limited economic resources, and geopolitical competition. The crisis of many Arab states deeply affects security sectors in the region, with implications for civil-military relations. In countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, different and rival sources of security assistance further trigger competitive violence on the ground and crystallize political-military rifts between local players. Impoverished and fractured security sectors are no longer tools of social welfare. Overstaffed and segmented armies cannot mitigate unemployment as they used to. Consequently, the lack of economic resources can favor youth recruitment by armed groups, with the possible rise in extremist and jihadist formations in the medium and long term. In many cases, armed groups can rely instead on wider, more lucrative sources of funding than the army and police forces, from the predation of the state economy to smuggling and trafficking to external financing. This not only increases disaffection and desertion in armies’ ranks but also tightens Arab security players’ dependence on foreign aid from international organizations and donors. For instance, Lebanon’s dramatic economic crisis and currency devaluation has further reduced resources for budget and personnel salaries. Since 2022, skyrocketing inflation and energy prices have made Lebanese defense and security forces even more dependent on international and foreign assistance, including for basic goods such as food and transport fuel.

Arab security sectors’ lack of economic resources not only paves the way for controversial forms of train-and-equip programs by foreign powers, but it also results in diminished attention to good governance principles. In fact, internally, narrow defense budgets are predominantly used to buy weapons and to pay salaries and basic duties (like food and transport fuel), with limited investments in accountability and human rights education and programming. In a broader way, SSR/G—especially the adaptation of the security-military apparatus to new global challenges—is affected by the lack of sufficient economic resources. For instance, economic constraints are going to impede many Arab states’ goals of reducing armed forces’ greenhouse gas emissions, while the impact of the armed forces on climate change is gradually acknowledged as a reality to be tackled through ad hoc initiatives. This is likely to produce some sort of “green divide” between richer and poorer countries internationally and within the Arab region.

Limited economic availability is also an obstacle for fighters’ integration into regular security sectors. The proliferation of armed groups impedes the implementation of traditional disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategies by Western stakeholders, for whom good governance is a relevant component. Reintegration is also an expensive process. States and security institutions must be able to financially support former fighters and their families, sometimes even their tribes, in the transition phase from insurgency to the regular security sector. In other cases, states must provide prospects and incentives for fighters’ integration into civilian life, such as vocational training.

From a cultural perspective, Arab security sectors mirror the “state of nationhood” in each country: In Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the plurality of conflicting armed players reflects a contested and fragmented national identity. But in the GCC states as well as in Jordan, Morocco, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, the army and its connected values of service, responsibility, and patriotism play, albeit differently, a role in building and/or strengthening national identity. Because of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States and Western states and organizations like NATO and the EU find themselves in varying degrees facing a strategic dilemma pertaining to the preservation and enhancement of their influence in MENA despite diminished resources. As the United States and NATO redirect their focus on emerging threats coming from Russia in Europe and from China in the Indo-Pacific, Western actors risk losing further leverage in MENA.

Simultaneously, many Arab states are destabilized by acute economic and institutional crises. And non-Western states within and beyond MENA are tightening their military and political influence in the area, disregarding local security players’ human rights and accountability records. Western countries and organizations started to cooperate with capable Arab military partners (such as Jordan and the UAE) to balance their resources and geopolitical interests. The United States will likely continue to reduce its direct engagement in MENA, in both political and military terms, while NATO has prioritized deterrence and defense, not cooperative security and defense capacity-building, in its 2022 Strategic Concept. The concept document gives special attention to the organization’s eastern flank; however, it does not mention NATO’s southern partnerships, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, nor does it mention the 2022 Madrid Summit Declaration. The focus on the eastern flank only reiterates the Atlantic alliance’s effort to enhance capacity-building support to MENA partners. Similarly, the most recent British defense strategy, the 2021 UK Integrated Review, reduced the number of mentions for the Middle East and the Gulf. This is a noticeable gap as Russian hybrid political-military penetration also involves Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Africa. This implicitly highlights that NATO and its member states, including the United States, acknowledge that they have narrow resources for defense capacity-building in the region, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, for Washington, the most sustainable policy includes supporting regionalized security in MENA in order to preserve stability and Western influence while countering Russian and Chinese penetration in the area.

Integrated deterrence stands at the core of the 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy, which outlines an approach in which Washington relies on allies and partners to develop and implement deterrence. For the United States, a partnership-oriented strategy in MENA means supporting the creation of an endogenous regional order, a process begun with the Abraham Accords. However, this strategy also presents risks for Arab security players and civil-military relations. Outsourcing MENA security to the Israel-GCC axis could increase regional misalignment from American and Western interests, thus provoking new tensions with Iran and its armed allies. For this reason, the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also good news for American and Western interests in the region, as it could pave the way for a broader, stability-oriented restructuring of the MENA order. However, two political questions are still on the stage. First, although Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to avoid a direct confrontation, their rivalry is going to indirectly last in the region. In this context, the political behavior of Iranian-related players vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the UAE is still to be tested, also given nonstate armed actors’ growing governance role and agency in national landscapes. Second, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and all the GCC states openly follow a parallel partnerships policy, along with Israel to a lesser extent. This means they are cultivating nonexclusive ties with the United States but also with Russia, India, and China: the outcome is that GCC countries have less predictable policies than they did before.

Conclusion: Arab Security and War in a Fast-Changing Scenario

The current mosaic of security in the Arab world is marked now more than ever by dynamism, given a domestic, regional, and international scenario that is still in flux. However, hierarchies and networks clearly develop on intersected levels: within states, between states and regional players, and between regional actors and international powers. In other words, current security balances in the Arab region build on the accelerated transformation of power relations on a multilevel basis. First, there is a renewed relationship between security sectors—more broadly, the state—and armed groups: many defense structures are no longer centered on the armies; hybridity as an analytical lens is obsolete and needs to be revisited to better grasp the governance dimension of current armed players; armed groups have turned into multitasking actors; and security governance is increasingly multipolar even in stable countries.

Secondly, in some states, the armed forces now have an enhanced political and representative role: conscription and national service programs were unprecedentedly introduced or reimplemented; armies’ budgets and visibility have increased; and investments in navies and naval bases at home and abroad have grown. Third, economic relations are reshaped with regard to the boundaries among formal, informal, and illicit networks: many security sectors are financially unsustainable and face problems and delays in salary payments; and most of the armed groups have adopted the neopatrimonial practices that once marked unequal, ineffective, and corrupted state institutions. Fourth, some Middle Eastern states (such as the GCC states, Iran, and Türkiye) have growing leverage in fractured Arab countries; at the same time, American and Western influence in MENA declines while Russian and Chinese penetration rises. In some countries, externally driven SSR/G and train-and-equip programs are competing, and the regionalization of security is shaping an endogenous order in the Middle East built upon the Abraham Accords and now, likely, on the Saudi-Iranian detente.

Against this backdrop, Arab security sectors and their international partners, first of all the United States, have to cope with threats that are increasingly multidomain, combining, for instance, direct and remote warfare or the use of drones and missiles against maritime targets. This scenario requires defense capacity-building and the advancement of interoperability within the countries and between partners. Moreover, it entails further efforts to integrate multidomain capabilities, which NATO defines as “the orchestration of military activities, across all domains and environments, synchronized with non-military activities.” The rebalancing of the U.S. security engagement “from hardware to holism” with Arab states follows this strategic direction: for Washington and other Western actors, presence now means support, capacity-building, and access rather than deployment and basing. This choice was first triggered by political and economic reasons, but it also allows greater adaptability to new warfare and its dynamics and actors. In fact, multidimensional threats in the Arab region and its neighborhood come both from states (like Iran) and nonstate armed actors (like Hezbollah, some Iraqi militias, and the Houthis), thus requiring an upgraded level of coordination between local players and Western partners. However, the intermeshing of armed actors with states institutions (such as in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria) affects not only the future of security sectors and civil-military relations but also the future of war.

Armed groups increasingly penetrate state structures in countries with declining institutional legitimacy, and states increasingly rely upon paramilitaries (as the Kremlin does with the Wagner Group). Given this complex and gray background, interstate wars could make a comeback in the future. Armed groups tend to bring their militia practices into the state rather than adapting to institutional codes, while gaining full access to the state’s military resources. But at this point, disentangling state from nonstate components of Arab security sectors would be a senseless exercise. The United States and other Western players must take this scenario into account to better support Arab partners and regional stability, while promoting, through agile presence and partnerships, their long-term interests in the Arab world.