The world’s growing appetite for arms shows no signs of slowing down, with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region making up one of the most lucrative markets in the world.
In its most recent report on trends in international arms sales, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) noted that “the volume of international transfers of major arms in 2015-19 was 5.5 per cent higher than in 2010-14 and 20 per cent higher than in 2005-2009.” Middle East nations (for which data was available) collectively spend 4.5 percent of GDP on weapons purchases, by far the highest percentage among regions of the globe. In fact, of the ten countries (out of 149 surveyed by SIPRI) that allocated four percent or more of their GDP to the military, seven were in the MENA region.
Ongoing regional conflicts, tensions with Iran, and the national prestige that acquiring modern military hardware can confer are all key drivers of what can only be described as a regional arms race. The sheer size of the market and the potency of arms deals as a tool to buy influence and help achieve broader foreign policy goals are compelling motivators for arms-purveying nations themselves. But the most powerful factor propelling arms sales across the region may be the bonds of mutual dependence between sellers and buyers, with wars begetting arms sales and arms sales begetting wars, an unvirtuous cycle that is little noted but is the fundamental principle driving international arms transfers.
Ongoing regional conflicts, tensions with Iran, and the national prestige that acquiring modern military hardware can confer are all key drivers of what can only be described as a regional arms race.
Often cited as an important tool to ensure regional stability, arms sales to the MENA region usually produce the opposite.
Who’s Selling? And Who’s Buying?
The United States remained the top seller of arms during 2015-2019, according to SIPRI, with 36 percent of global sales (up from 31 percent in the period 2010-2014). Russia, France, Germany, and China—in that order—are the other top four arms exporters, with a combined 40.2 percent of global arms deals during the same period. US allies the United Kingdom, Spain, Israel, Italy, and South Korea round up the top ten, combining for 14 percent of the global share. Together, these ten countries account for some 90 percent of worldwide arms sales, with 15 other countries picking up most of the remaining market share.
Furthermore, the Middle East remains a top destination for world arms exports. Six of the top ten arms importers are in the MENA region, led by Saudi Arabia, which became the world’s chief arms importer in 2015-2019. In this period, the kingdom absorbed 12 percent of global arms exports, more than double its 5.6 percent share from 2010 to 2014 (a 130-percent increase from the earlier period). Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Qatar were also in the top ten, with a collective 20.2 percent of global arms imports over the most recent five-year period.
Drivers of Arms Imports: The Buyers
As in previous years, ongoing regional conflicts remain the chief driver of arms sales in MENA. “Hot” conflicts, such as the long-running Saudi-led war in Yemen, the civil war in Syria, Egypt’s fight against Islamist militants in the Sinai and Western Desert, and Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State all generate high demand for resupply of spent munitions and replacement of damaged or destroyed equipment. “Cold” conflicts that might erupt at some point—such as the three-year-old standoff involving Saudi Arabia, several of its key allies, and Qatar—have generated major defensive military buildups. (Qatar alone raised its share of global arms imports by 631 percent during 2015-2019 compared with the 2010-14 period, according to SIPRI’s estimate.) Tensions with Iran—what might be termed a “simmering” conflict—have also contributed significantly to the regional arms race, including buildups in both the Gulf and Israel. In addition, while there is no active war between Israel and Arab countries, the fact that Israel acquires state-of-the-art weapons from the United States and maintains its own arms industry––and is indeed an arms exporter, even to Arab countries––adds to the sense of insecurity among many states, no matter how they stand on issues pertaining to its relations with the Palestinians. Finally, countries of the region consistently need to replace obsolescent weapons systems or upgrade to newer and more effective capabilities.
It is not only wars or the rumors of wars that have caused the sharp upward trend in MENA weapons purchases. National prestige and geopolitics often come into play.
But it is not only wars or the rumors of wars that have caused the sharp upward trend in MENA weapons purchases. National prestige and geopolitics often come into play. Wealthy governments in the Gulf vie with one another to acquire the latest weapons systems, mostly of US origin, not just to deter Iran or each other but for the regional status and bragging rights that maintaining a highly modernized military affords; this is in addition to the international prestige and the influence it confers. The UAE’s reputation within the Pentagon as a “Little Sparta” that punches well above its weight is just one example.
Countries that have more limited resources but consider themselves regional heavyweights play this game, too. Egypt, for example,1 repeatedly sought to start the process of purchasing F-15 fighter aircraft from the United States in the late 1990s and through the early 2000s, not because they filled a need unmet by their existing fleet of modern F-16s, but because regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia possessed them. (The Pentagon and State Department refused to entertain the requests.)
Regime security plays a role here as well. The vital importance of the military as a key strand of the region’s “pillared states” forces governments to cater to the needs, and wants, of their armed forces as a matter of top priority, ensuring they have the latest and best equipment possible. This is not only for reasons of national prestige but, to put it bluntly, to keep their often-bloated military establishments happy and divert the generals’ minds from coup-plotting.
Drivers of Arms Exports: The Sellers
Arms-exporting nations have their own compelling economic and geostrategic reasons for sales to the MENA region. The sheer size of the market and the seeming inexhaustibility of demand, of course, make the market extremely attractive to global arms suppliers. SIPRI estimates that the sum of known arms purchases by MENA countries was approximately $147 billion in 2019; this total excludes Qatar and the UAE, which are among the top global arms importers, as well as Syria and Yemen, since none of these countries has made such data public.
The trade and financial benefits that arms exporters reap are matched, at least in their own estimation, by the political and diplomatic influence they accrue.
The trade and financial benefits that arms exporters reap are matched, at least in their own estimation, by the political and diplomatic influence they accrue. Russia, the world’s second largest arms merchant after the United States, has sought to advance its political agenda in the region at Washington’s expense through arms sales to US clients, including Egypt (which has signed deals for Russian-made MiG-29s and S-300 anti-aircraft systems as well as Su-35 fighter jets) and Saudi Arabia (in talks for S-400 missile systems). The UAE and Qatar are among other Gulf countries being wooed by Russian defense companies. France, the United Kingdom and Germany have all increased exports to MENA countries over the last few years, particularly the Gulf. China, too, has recently stepped up exports to the region; while it is still a relatively minor player, it has done so in large part to proclaim its reliability as a diplomatic partner and bolster its rise to superpower status, hand in hand with its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.
Arms and US MENA Policy
But it is the United States that has done more than any other country to advance arms sales as a principal tool of its foreign policy in the MENA region. In fact, the Trump Administration appears to see weapons exports not simply as a tool of policy but as a substitute for policy itself. This is understandable, perhaps, for an administration that appears uninterested in the major diplomatic and political issues of the region and for which the relatively straightforward, transactional nature of the arms trade is an easy call.
Trump himself implicitly endorsed this interpretation in 2018, when his “Buy American” slogan resulted in a dictum to American diplomats and defense attachés to advocate vigorously for US arms exports abroad. Trump has effusively praised arms sales not only as an element of foreign policy but as a massive job generator, a claim closely linked to the president’s reelection prospects but largely debunked by independent analysts. Nevertheless, the American president and his administration have stuck to their guns, so to speak, vigorously defending arms sales as an essential tool of statecraft and economic policy, even if the purchasers are prodigious human rights abusers.
The American president and his administration have stuck to their guns, so to speak, vigorously defending arms sales as an essential tool of statecraft and economic policy, even if the purchasers are prodigious human rights abusers.
In the best-known example, the White House pushed back against suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In an extraordinary statement, the administration insisted that the kingdom’s role in the fight against extremism and the Islamic State, tensions with Iran, and position as a lead oil producer trumped any human rights concerns when it came to arms sales. The statement also noted that “Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors” would stand to lose if defense contracts were canceled, to the benefit of Russia and China. In a sign of the importance of this issue to Trump, the State Department’s inspector general was fired in May, allegedly after looking into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s role in circumventing congressional curbs on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among other things.
The Trump Administration’s FY’21 budget request reflects this emphasis and indicates how pervasive arms and security have become in the president’s approach to the Middle East. As an analysis by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) shows, the request continues a trend of “securitizing” US aid to the MENA region while lowballing the democracy and governance, economic, and health assistance sectors. Indeed, POMED points out, the administration’s “$5.46 billion proposal for security assistance accounts for 83.4 percent of the total request for MENA.”
The Unvirtuous Cycle
Foreign policy and economic rationalizations aside, the MENA region’s arms trade is driven largely by its own self-reinforcing dynamics. As arms-exporting states become more invested in weapons sales as a symbol of economic vigor and foreign policy clout, pressure mounts to increase export volumes as well as the roster of clients. Governments can be assured of enthusiastic backing from their own defense industries; in the United States, major defense contractors, their lobbyists, and congressional delegations of states where defense manufacturers are located maintain pressure to keep arms sales at the center of international security relationships, providing political cover as necessary.
The very possession of modern weapons systems encourages their use, particularly by countries that do not have effective parliamentary or public oversight of government decision-making.
Arms imports bring their own compelling logic. Studies have shown that arms sales can often make conflicts more likely. The very possession of modern weapons systems encourages their use, particularly by countries that do not have effective parliamentary or public oversight of government decision-making but do have determined autocratic leadership and well-financed, cosseted militaries. The origins and prosecution of Saudi Arabia’s controversial military campaign in Yemen is a prominent example. Such conflicts, however, are seldom decisive; more often, they lead to a cycle in which each side, and its international sponsors, escalates its activities as more and better weapons flow in. All this increases the violence and prolongs the conflict, as we have seen in Yemen and Syria. Thus, the cycle continues.
The (Sometimes) Hidden Costs of the Arms Trade
Despite the lucrative nature of international arms transfers and the geostrategic rationale behind them, there are significant risks and downsides that come along, too. These include human rights abuses and terrorism; end-use concerns; and diversion of resources from important social and economic goals. All of this directly undermines the ostensible purpose of arms sales to MENA countries: maintaining and strengthening regional stability. These problems, even when they are taken seriously by arms-exporting nations, have often defied solution.
Human rights abuses. Arms sales to MENA countries have been frequently associated with human rights abuses due to the autocratic nature of many of the purchasing countries. Moreover, their leaders and governments often have a tendency to use imported weapons and gear against their own citizens or in ruthless conflicts involving high civilian casualties. One major target for criticism in recent years has been the lucrative and growing market for riot control gear, including chemical agents, which are often used to suppress political protests. The war in Yemen has also raised alarms in Washington and several European capitals about the high level of civilian casualties inflicted on the population. The European Union parliament passed resolutions in 2016 and 2017 calling for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia; Germany, Norway, and Belgium have enacted restrictions on arms sales to the kingdom even as others (such as the UK) have resisted parliamentary pressure to follow suit.
The Trump Administration has done the opposite. It loosened former President Barack Obama’s arms transfer restrictions on several key human rights abusers, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and President Trump vetoed legislation in 2018 that would have suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of its conduct in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and other key recipients of US arms have learned how to play up their weapons purchases to minimize attention on their human rights abuses and lack of political freedom.
In response, Saudi Arabia and other key recipients of US arms have learned how to play up their weapons purchases to minimize attention on their human rights abuses and lack of political freedom. This strategy has been made all the easier by the Trump Administration’s prioritization of arms exports above many other regional diplomatic goals.
End-use concerns. Both the United States and Europe have legal end-user controls intended to prevent human rights abuses and the diversion of arms to illicit uses. For the United States, arms exports are governed principally by the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended by the Leahy Law of 1997. The EU’s “Common Position” on arms exports serves a similar purpose. In practice, though, these laws have proven only partially effective.
Take the example of Egypt. Human Rights Watch, to name one international watchdog, has accused Cairo of “committing serious and widespread abuses against civilians” in Sinai, some of which “amount to war crimes.” But according to an internal State Department review, the United States lacks information on how US-provided weapons are being used there, and thus is unable to hold the Egyptian government to account. Concerns about the misuse of US weapons against civilian populations have likewise been raised against Israel and Saudi Arabia; however, they have been largely brushed off by Congress or the White House, and sometimes both.
Potential and actual diversion of weapons to terrorist groups remains a very real concern; intentional and unintentional transfer of US-made arms by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to militant groups in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda and Islamist militias, has added to the intensity and violence of the conflict. Use of US-made weapons against American troops occurs in the Middle East, despite end-use restrictions, in practically every conflict the United States has fought there; this is because of weapons transfers to friends-turned-foes as well as the black market arms trade.
The EU has its own problems with end-use certification. Its Common Policy is poorly coordinated and leaves arms exporting decisions up to individual countries, which are usually driven not by rights concerns but by politics and profit. This makes end-use certification even more difficult.
Diversion of resources. For arms importers in the MENA region, there is a substantial (if often hidden) domestic cost to their military buildups. Arms purchases divert substantial resources that might otherwise be spent on fundamental social needs, including education and health. Spending among MENA countries on health care, for example, tends to be about three percent of GDP, considerably less than the percentage of GDP spent on arms imports. At the same time, most countries in the region, including some of the wealthiest such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, continue to run structural budget deficits, a situation made worse by the downturn in global oil prices since 2014.
Arms purchases divert substantial resources that might otherwise be spent on fundamental social needs, including education and health.
Saudi Arabia, in particular, faces a number of pressing needs, including economic modernization, diversification, and job creation; these can only be realized by devoting more resources and attention to education, training, and other social programs. As the analyst Anthony Cordesman has noted, Saudi Arabia faces “a wide range of social, political, governance, and economic challenges that will require a massive level of government direction and investment to correct … Saudi Arabia can only address these challenges to civil stability if it brings its security spending under control, and creates a better balance between spending on security and its civil sector.” Other major arms purchasers in the region face similar guns vs. butter tradeoffs.
Arms and the Coronavirus
The worldwide economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus, compounding the collapse in oil prices, may be the only factor that could put downward pressure on arms purchases in the MENA region at present. The Gulf’s economic ambitions have been especially hard hit. Any lull, however, is not likely to last for long, as the conflicts and political imperatives driving arms sales shown few signs of a letup. For now, the Middle East and North Africa states appear to be in no danger of losing their perch as the world’s most militarized region.
1 This assessment is based on the personal diplomatic experience of the author.