top of page

Book Review: Security Assistance in the Middle East. Challenges and the Need for Change

Alaoui H. and Springborg R. (edited by) (2023). Security Assistance in the Middle East. Challenges and the Need for Change, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

By Elena Potitò, former intern at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)


The book “Security Assistance in the Middle East. Challenges and the Need for Change”, edited by Hicham Alaoui - founder and director of the Hicham Alaoui Foundation - and Robert Springborg - adjunct professor at the SFU School for International Studies in Vancouver - offers a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of Western Security Assistance (SA), primarily provided by the United States (US), to Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Thanks to the valuable scholars’ and practitioners’ contributions, the volume draws on analytical and empirical inputs to evaluate the supply of SA and formulates some recommendations for its improvement.


Although US SA should formally be implemented employing a wide range of mechanisms and according to the specific needs of recipient countries and US strategic interests, the predominant practice has, in reality, hinged on financing national armies, mainly through the provision of American weapon systems. Not only has this approach been deemed controversial, but it has also yielded mixed results. As the authors highlight, SA has contributed to undermining the institutional stability of recipient countries and fostering their authoritarian drift and economic backlog. Combined with a focus on military affairs, the providers’ lack of strategic foresight has hampered the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights. This dynamic characterizes the ‘democratic paradox’, claiming that “Western democratic states are the prime external supporters of authoritarian, antidemocratic MENA regimes” [325]. Examining the wide range of flaws characterising longstanding Western SA initiatives, the book revolves around the questions of whether it is worth reforming the established model of Western SA provision in the MENA region and how to proceed forward in this endeavour [vii]. 


To address these questions, the book is divided into five sections. The first one outlines the main challenges SA providers and recipients face, stemming from “interest misalignments” [13]. Focusing on Tunisia, Noureddine Jebnoun (Chapter 4) thoroughly depicts a case of principal-agent misalignment, where the Tunisian military prioritises “raw security assistance stressing performance and effectiveness over security reform” [71], whereas Western actors centre on enhancing expertise in counterterrorism and border management. Likewise, Aram Nerguizian (Chapter 5) analyses the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)’s focus on domestic objectives and lack of strategic guidance from its civilian counterpart. Meanwhile, the US prioritises other agendas, particularly the advancement of Israel’s security, hampering the execution of US strategic interests in Lebanon.

The second section highlights the main obstacles that European countries as well as multilateral and regional actors face in delivering SA and extending their influence in MENA. Concerning the European Union (EU), Florence Gaub and Alex Walsh (Chapter 7) underscore its focus on empowering national governance and the rule of law, as opposed to its member states, mainly providing hard security to the region. Moreover, in Chapter 8, Kevin Koehler’s analysis of NATO's SA supply reveals the Alliance’s overreliance on the national politics of its members, leading to divergent approaches in using NATO mechanisms.

Civil-military relations in recipient countries are at the core of the third section. In Chapter 11 (by Sean Yom) the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF) serve as a case study to illustrate how US SA has empowered the stability of the national autocratic regime and, at the same time, garnered high public support for the JAF while pursuing Washington’s geopolitical interests. Moreover, through statistical analysis, Chapter 12 reveals a correlation between US-backed powerful armed forces and their increased public support. It underlines the importance of addressing the “tension between promoting security and democracy” [250] through a human-centred approach, while bolstering democratic accountability of the military via civilian oversight. A final analysis by Yezid Sayigh (Chapter 13) underscores the risks associated with the widespread lack of civilian participation in defence-related matters in the region.

Throughout the fourth part of the book, first-hand experiences from distinguished figures like former US Air Force General F.C. Williams (Chapter 14) and former US Army Colonel John Zavage (Chapter 15) support the aforementioned academic perspectives by highlighting principal-agent challenges in the US-Egypt relationship and critiquing current US SA evaluation methods.

Drawing on these contributions, the final chapter elaborated by Hicham Alaoui and Robert Springborg presents the major scholarly propositions to reform the current SA model. Beyond ‘radical’ positions suggesting doubling down SA or withdrawing entirely from MENA, realist thinking proposes offshore balancing (Mearsheimer and Walt, 2016), while progressive perspectives foresee a shift of focus on human security by applying the “3Ds” (Diplomacy, Democratisation, Development) approach (Gates, 2020). The current geopolitical context strengthens both the authors’ hypothesis that abandonment of the region is unlikely to occur in the near future, as well as their definition of offshore balancing as more of an academic exercise than a pragmatic strategy. Also, the authors deem the application of 3Ds as risky due to the low regional receptivity of the values that this method bears, even though the approach that garners the most support is a people-centred one.


The main strength of the volume lies in its ability to incorporate diverse approaches and voices - not only through the mentioned contributions but also through interviews with local populations (Chapter 4). The fil rouge of these perspectives lies in that, having collected the vastest degree of foreign equipment and training, Arab countries failed to reach commensurate levels of defence capabilities and modernisation of their weapon systems. As previously highlighted, Western efforts in the region have not contributed to fostering democratisation nor effectively countered the increasing influence of Russia, Iran, and China. These aspects are accurately demonstrated through the application of different analytical frameworks, such as the securitisation theory [78] (Buzan, Weaver, and de Wilde, 1998) or the concept of “entanglements” [193]. Besides, the book properly tackles the double-edged sword nature of SA, not least by illustrating the regional relevance gained by Iran at the expense of further destabilisation through the financing of non-state actors and the use of non-conventional threats. In this respect, while several chapters underline the need for Western SA providers to enhance their MENA allies’ capabilities in grey-zone warfare (e.g. cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, influence or mercenary operations), this aspect remains underdeveloped. Whilst countries like Russia and Iran actively promote hybrid activities  in the area, the risks associated with these practices are significant, particularly in terms of undermining democratic values and the legitimacy of the state system.


In conclusion, considering the renewed centrality acquired by the addressed topics, the holistic approach of this book provides precious insights not only for students and scholars but also for policymakers. As extensively pointed out by the authors, the main challenge lies in the difficulty of articulating an accurate MENA SA strategy prioritising long-term regional and national objectives over favouring benefits for the US weapon industry and the development of operational capabilities. In light of recent developments, these considerations should be regarded as imperatives for all Western actors engaged in the region.




Buzan, B., Wæver, O. and De Wilde, J. (1998). Security : A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Gates, R.M. (2020). Exercise of power: American failures, successes, and a new path forward in the post-Cold War world. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Mearsheimer, J.J. and Walt, S.M. (2016). The Case for Offshore Balancing. Foreign Affairs. Available at: [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].




bottom of page