A new security culture in the Middle East

Eman Ragab
Friday 14 Jul 2023

New frameworks and mechanisms to ensure security in the Middle East and North Africa region have arisen over recent years.


The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long been seen as suffering from a security deficit, all the more so when compared to other regions that have succeeded in creating dynamic forms of collective security to contend against common threats.

However, the last seven years have given rise to a number of new frameworks and mechanisms for security in the region. Some of these have been proposed by the US, others by countries from the region itself. Some of them focus on terrorism, such as the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) in Riyadh and the Sahel and Sahara Counter-Terrorism Centre (CEN-SAD) in Cairo. Others are concerned with maritime security, such as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) and the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

Several mechanisms have also been established to carry out strategic-political consultation on conventional and non-conventional security matters. These include the Negev Forum announced in June 2022, the I2U2 Group founded in the autumn of 2021, and the Trilateral Mechanism between Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq launched in 2020.

Clearly, the MENA region is on the threshold of a new phase in which a diversity of multilateral arrangements is resting on a new security culture. The latter refers to the bedrock on which the security relations among a group of countries are built together with their collective security decisions and strategies.

It helps them to determine the answers to the two vital questions that any regional security arrangement must address. What is at risk in the region? What are the sources of threat?

The new security culture in the Middle East has three main dimensions. The first is the shift away from a long-standing security outlook that focused on threats to a vision that emphasises collective opportunities as an approach to minimising or mitigating them. This opportunity-oriented outlook is a totally new direction in strategic thinking in the MENA region.

The second is the new inclination among the countries of this region to expand the concept of security beyond the military and political domain to include the economy, technology, society, culture, the environment and health. It is thus a comprehensive approach, but it does not presume there must be direct links in order to enhance the level of security in each.

The third dimension asks about the sources of threats to the region. The MENA countries generally prefer not to categorise any country as an “enemy” or a “friend” regardless of whether it belongs to the region or not or is a great power with interests in it. On the other hand, they are more open to the notion of a “frenemy,” meaning that they are open to forging networks of relations founded on the basis of mutual interests, shared security concerns and perspectives, and mutual benefits, even if they do not see eye-to-eye on everything.

The collective security mechanisms that might arise in the future will probably thus focus not on particular “enemy” states but on specific issues that constitute threats and opportunities. The countries that take part in these mechanisms will be like-minded in the sense that they will share perspectives on mutual interests and potential benefits.

If a country is included or excluded from a particular security arrangement, it will not be on the basis of a “friend-or-foe” judgement. Instead, it will be on the basis of criteria related to what it can bring to relationships in the framework of that arrangement. The new security culture also means that any potential collective security arrangements will not necessarily include all Arab countries or exclude non-Arab countries. They will most likely have a limited number of members focused on certain issues of mutual interest and include both Arab and non-Arab partners.

In keeping with this new security culture, there will also be increasing attention paid to non-military aspects of regional security, as military tools on their own has proven ineffective in dealing with the non-military aspects of security. Future collective security arrangements will thus engage a diverse set of tools that are best suited to dealing with the issues that fall within the scope of these arrangements.

Economic, technological, environmental, medical or other tools can be brought to bear depending on the case in hand. The private sector will also play an increasingly vital role in providing and administering the necessary measures. In other words, the particular strengths of a particular state will no longer be the primary factors to be born in mind when determining the measures and tools to be brought to bear in any collective security arrangement.

Instead, the capacities and resources of private sector firms, including multinational companies, will become more and more instrumental, especially in the light of the growing consensus among the countries in the region that the current and future cross-border economic, social, and security challenges require unconventional forms of collective action.

These will bring to bear modern technologies and the contributions of young people and women in order to ensure sustainable stability and security in the region.

The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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