Armed and very dangerous

Armed and very dangerous
Comment: The Middle East's rulers are shoring up their huge arsenals, proving that cash will always trump human rights concerns, writes Bill Law.
5 min read
29 Oct, 2015
In 2014, Saudi Arabia overtook India to become the world’s biggest arms importer [AFP]

A just-released study from Transparency International makes for stark and disturbing reading. The report, titled Middle East & North Africa: Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index measures levels of corruption in defence spending in what has become the world's most violent and volatile region.

Sixteen of the seventeen states assessed in the index receive either E or F grades, representing either a "very high" or "critical" risk of defence corruption. 

Only Tunisia performs better, although it is still classed as "high risk". Israel and Palestine will be included in a separate report.

The figures involved in weapons sales are eye-popping. In 2014, Saudi Arabia overtook India to become the world's biggest importer of arms, snapping up $6.4 billion worth of weaponry. In addition, according to the report, the Saudis financed the purchase of $2 billion in Russian arms on behalf of Egypt's military-backed government.

Spurred on by worries about Iran, the Saudis keep right on buying: according to a study by IHS Janes released earlier this year, the kingdom will account for one in every seven dollars of global weapons spend in 2015.

One spree alone - the purchase of 12 frigates, four destroyers, as well as corvettes and submarines, is estimated to be worth $20 billion over the next ten years.

     The Saudis are by no means alone in the mad dash for the latest in sophisticated military hardware

But the Saudis are by no means alone in the mad dash for the latest in sophisticated military hardware.

The tiny state of Qatar - with no real defence concerns and an indigenous population of little more than a quarter of a million - has embarked on a massive upgrade of its armed forces. And again the sums involved are staggering.

"Based on existing contracts already signed, Qatar will be importing $3.5 billion [of weaponry] by 2019," Ben Moores, who authored the IHS Janes report, told me. "And we expect it to award a further $28 billion in new contracts that will be delivered over the coming decade."

Tellingly, the Qataris scored an F, "critical", and the Saudis an E, "very high risk" in the Transparency International table. Another big player joining the Saudis in the "very high risk" category was the UAE, with a 2014 spend of $2.2 billion.

And what are these cash-rich countries getting for their dosh? It is impressive: F15 fighter jets, Apache combat helicopters, Piranha armoured personnel carriers, IRIS-T air-to-air infrared missiles, CAESAR 155mm self-propelled Howitzers, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), AEWs (air-borne early-warning aircraft), ballistic missile defences, landing craft, anti-tank missiles – the list is seemingly endless, as arms dealers rush to meet the wishes of their wealthy clients, with, as Transparency International argues, very few constraints to slow them down. 

Katherine Dixon, one of the report authors, notes: "Over a quarter of the world's most secretive defence spending is in the Middle East. Corruption puts international security at risk, as money and weapons can be diverted to fuel conflict."

And indeed that is exactly what is happening. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have steered weapons into the Syrian war, choosing to back a loose coalition of rebel forces known as the Army of Conquest, which includes the local al- Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front.

A third big Gulf spender, the UAE, has partnered with the Saudis in the Yemen war. Iran - which backs the Houthi rebellion there - is yet another "very high risk" country, and as Transparency International says: "Neither Russia nor Iran have disclosed any of the financial details regarding the S-300 missile defence system deal signed in August this year, estimated to be worth $800 million."

And while external players such as the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and China pile arms into the Middle East, the authoritarian regimes that run nearly all the countries buying the weapons have no appropriate oversight and virtually no accountability or transparency of  their defence and security establishments.

The Transparency International report notes: "Across the region, only Jordan and Tunisia publish information on defence and security budgets, though with insufficient detail for any meaningful scrutiny."

     Nepotism, secrecy, family networks, the report argues, all contribute to a culture where corruption is endemic

Nepotism, secrecy, family networks, the report argues, all contribute to a culture where corruption is endemic, and help to create a situation that, rather than providing security, only escalates instability:

"High-ranking princes in Saudi Arabia preside over powerful defence agencies and use those assets to distribute patronage to their client base. In Iraq, individuals can buy military positions - with a Divisional Commander's job reportedly being sold for $2m. In Yemen and Oman, all senior positions within the intelligence services are filled on the basis of political patronage and family ties. The lack of accountability has undermined the development of strategic defence procurement policies further threatening security in the region."

Commenting on the growing instability, one expert told me: "It is like Europe's 30-Year War with different state actors trying to influence events, with fires stamped out in one place popping up in another, with young and angry demographics. The region is a massive powder keg."

And into this powder keg we are busily pouring a seemingly inexhaustible supply of armaments. How ironic then that the Transparency International report was funded by the UK government - the same government that routinely waves through sales of weapons to the region.

How does one explain the apparent contradiction? Well, it is probably best understood by what one analyst recently told me when it comes to weapons sales: "It is always cash that speaks the loudest."

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.