Though few in the West took note of the occasion, back in late 2013 Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, officially opened to much local acclaim the National Defense College.
The College, which is under the general command of the Armed Forces, is not just aiming to train the next generation of Emirati leaders but to become an intellectual hub for the region in terms of innovative education and scholarship within the disciplines of strategic studies, national security, diplomacy, and intelligence studies. Zayed himself praised the mission of the College, hoping it would truly accomplish its ambitious goals of becoming world famous in preparing both military and civilian leaders in all realms of national, regional, and global affairs.
The level of vision and innovation shown by the Emirates in launching this educational institute should not be underestimated. It truly represents one of the only contemporary efforts in the greater Middle East region to create and promote a native expertise that is wholly independent and not influenced by external partnerships. Most of the major educational organizations that get the bulk of media attention in the region have largely achieved that focus by virtue of the bilateral collaborations established with major American universities. These places can be found in Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain and are fine institutions, without a doubt. But they are not truly native efforts nor is the intellectual leadership of said institutions oriented around the elevation of the domestic scholarly and strategic leadership complex within the region. This has always been a flaw in how the West engaged the greater Middle East intellectually: while readily admitting the continued importance of the region in terms of resources, diplomacy, and strategic value, the West has never developed REAL academic partnerships in the region, where both parties – Western and Arab – are co-equals and co-leaders. This is at least partially to blame for a lack of native development like the one constructed in Abu Dhabi: everyone wants the money, notoriety, and prestige of having a connection to a well-established American university. But this short cut has arguably been extremely detrimental in the cultivation of native talent and leadership from within the region itself. The National Defense College was specifically set up to answer that challenge and the Emirates need to be commended for the attempt.
After all, it would have been quite understandable for the Emirates to not make the effort. The UAE has long been the unquestioned leader in the region in terms of commerce, finance, banking, and numerous other business endeavors. Dubai has become synonymous with leading industry and avant-garde architecture and economy. No one would have blamed the Emirates for resting on those laurels and focusing on its ‘niche’ well into the 21st century. But to launch an institute that is meant “to analyze how domestic, national, transnational, and international factors shape strategy; to understand the relationship between political objectives, strategy, and the use of instruments of national power (e.g. diplomatic, military, economic, information – including cyber) to resource strategy in peace, crisis and war; to develop appropriate strategies and crisis-management responses; and, to examine how strategic leaders shape and implement policy and strategy” when there was no strong foundation for such ambition is beyond praise-worthy. It should be seen as a crucial step of strategic leadership progress in the region that has been heretofore very slow to develop for various cultural, structural, and financial-educational reasons already mentioned.
This is not to say the Emirates are trying to set up a prejudicial or biased academic center. On the contrary, it openly welcomes cooperative interaction and engagement with institutes and scholars from all over the globe. The crucial difference, however, between the National Defense College and many of its forerunners throughout the region is that the NDC is an EMIRATI initiative and Emirati-controlled and led. It is responsible for the exclusive structure, dynamic, and direction of the college heading off into the future and no partnerships or cooperative agreements with other educational bodies, no matter where they are from or how historically prestigious they may be, is going to change that basic executive structure. This is a wonderfully bold and daring challenge and one that was desperately needed in the greater Middle East. It is important to have native-grown and cultivated schools of thought and centers of strategic education in the region, where no one can question the origin of the intellectual product or the true purpose behind the scholarly initiatives and endeavors. Even if that is the proclaimed desire in other places around the Middle East, the intensity and depth of the American institutional, structural, and scholarly saturation prevents these comparable centers from ever being able to truly lay claim to such a lofty title: a GULF school of thought, fostered and cultivated through GULF leadership alone. Even the school emblem of the NDC drives home the uniqueness of the initiative and its aim to be independent in perpetuity.
As with any institution, if one wishes to understand the commitment behind it and whether it is here for the long-term or is a poorly-organized attempt destined for dissolution in the near-term, an examination of the governing council, or board of directors as it is often called in Western education, is all that is needed. In this analysis, the National Defense College holds great promise indeed, for the representatives of its higher council happen to also hold the following high offices in Emirati governance: Minister of the Interior; Foreign Minister; National Security Advisor; Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research; Minister of Cabinet Affairs; Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces; Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council; and Director General of the Emirates Centre of Strategic Studies and Research. It is difficult to imagine a more directly impactful and relevant Higher Council representing the leadership of an institution. The National Defense College is still very young. Its student body even younger and still finding its way. But what matters most is this attempt at building a truly local, truly Emirate, national security scholarly complex is educational and strategic leadership vision at its best. The world should not only be watching. It should be hoping for its success.