How the private sector supports Arab world authoritarians (part I)

How the private sector supports Arab world authoritarians (part I)
Comment: The international private sector has succoured authoritarian regimes and dictators for decades with a combination of arms, advice, technology and lobbying writes Charles W. Dunne.
7 min read
05 Feb, 2019
In 2017 the US accounted for 34 percent of global arms exports [Anadolu]
When the global resilience of authoritarianism and its causes are considered, the role played by governments, leaders, and international organisations and their policies in confronting or abetting dictatorships worldwide is often the focus of discussion. 

President Trump's
apparent affinity for autocrats, for example, has frequently been linked to the recent success of populist strongmen worldwide. In fact, there is evidence to suggest many of the globe's authoritarians look to him as an inspiration.

But it would be a mistake to focus on politicians and governments as the only agents capable of making or breaking authoritarian regimes.

Beneath the surface of official policies, democracy promotion strategies, and international human rights resolutions, non-governmental actors have a major influence on the persistence of global authoritarianism.

In particular, the international private sector has succoured authoritarian regimes for decades, providing investments, arms, advice, technology, and lobbying power that help keep many dictatorial regimes afloat and shield them from the consequences of their domestic abuses and occasional international adventurism.

Together, international corporations and repressive regimes in the Middle East comprise a sort of "authoritarian-industrial complex" that bolsters the political status quo in the region, helps governments resist internal pressure for change, and incentivises external powers to prefer the apparent stability authoritarianism engenders over the messy unpredictability of free societies and accountable governance.

Bolstering the authoritarian regime

International corporations help bolster the authoritarian status quo that prevails in most of the Arab region through several key elements: Arms sales, security and censorship technology, expertise and dual-use knowhow, willing acquiescence to repressive governance and political influence, both overt and implied. And, always, money.

Arms Sales: Supporting Interventions Abroad and Security Needs at Home.

Arms exports to the Middle East doubled over the last 10 years, according to a
2017 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with the United States leading the way.

By the end of 2017 the United States accounted for 34 percent of global arms exports (58 percent higher than Russia, the second leading exporter), with nearly half (49 percent) of total US exports headed for the Middle East. The top five customers for US defense articles in the Middle East are, in order, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.

The top five customers for US defense articles in the Middle East are, in order, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates

The vast influx of arms has helped equip US allies, especially Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, to modernise their forces and achieve a certain degree of interoperability with the United States and with each other, which is useful for joint operations of various kinds, combating terrorism more effectively, and deterring Iran.

It has also, however, equipped these states to conduct unwise adventures at home and repression abroad.

Following are some cases in point:

In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has prosecuted a conflict for nearly five years that has resulted in the
world's worst humanitarian crisis, and numerous attacks have caused high civilian death tolls inflicted with US-supplied weapons.

Last October the European parliament approved a
nonbinding resolution calling on member states to impose a boycott on arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the Khashoggi killing, but it is unlikely such a general ban has any chance of being adopted.

In Egypt's Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian army has been pressing its campaign to destroy the "Sinai Province" of the Islamic State, utilising heavy weapons, cluster munitions, and air power provided through the $1.3 billion US military assistance programme. (The United States is not alone in this regard; many EU states have continued to equip Egypt with arms and police equipment supposedly banned by EU policy since the 2013 Rabaa massacre.)

Arms sales to Bahrain likewise
became controversial after the crackdown on the so-called Pearl Revolution of 2011-14, in which disenfranchised Shia citizens demanded greater political freedoms. Allegations arose that US weapons were being used against unarmed demonstrators.

American arms sales to the Middle East serve an important US national security purpose. But lack of rigorous oversight of equipment end-use has permitted abuses that help regimes maintain internal security to the detriment of human rights.

According to industry analysts, the homeland security market in the region is projected to grow 15.5 percent annually through 2022, with the greatest growth expected to come in the Gulf region.

Internal Security: A big, and growing business

Like the arms market, the internal security needs of the Middle East are a big business, and it is poised to get bigger.
According to industry analysts, the homeland security market in the region is projected to grow 15.5 percent annually through 2022, with the greatest growth expected to come in the Gulf region.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the biggest buyers in this market. Internal security technology remained the top seller, with Saudi Arabia representing 45 percent of the market in terms of revenue (as of 2017), followed by the Emirates with a 16.6 percent share.

Many of the sales involve technology and systems with specific applications to enforcement of regime repression. The United Kingdom, for example, has approved the sale of over $40 million in spyware and other surveillance equipment to a variety of Middle Eastern countries since 2015, despite legal prohibitions under the 2008 British Export Controls Act barring such sales to countries where there is a substantial risk of internal repression.

Like the arms market, the internal security needs of the Middle East are a big business

BAE, the largest UK arms exporter, sold surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Algeria, and Morocco, spurring security concerns (if not human rights concerns) in Whitehall.

The repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been an important customer, too; several western European firms supplied the regime with tens of millions of dollars' worth of surveillance equipment and technology in the lead up to the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution as part of an official project to build a "Central Monitoring System for Public Data Network Services and Internet."

This effort provided the regime the capability to monitor all internet-based communication and web searches, including email, chatroom discussions, Voice over IP (VoIP) calls, instant messaging, Virtual Private Networks, and other web-based applications, and to censor online content, a capability it put to full use to spy on and target activists and regime opponents.

Saudi Arabia is another major buyer of surveillance technology; it is an especially attractive buyer in part because of its interest in building high-tech cities from scratch, where the technology can be built right into the infrastructure and thus tested on an industrial scale.

Riyadh also has the deep pockets to pay for it all. The UK firm
Hugslock and the American company Gatekeeper Intelligent Security are among the firms marketing high-tech surveillance systems to the kingdom, including sophisticated facial recognition equipment and other detection devices. (The UAE is another leading Gulf customer of the companies.)

Not to be outdone, the Israeli firm NSO Group - which provides, among other things, spyware aimed at unlocking the iPhone - has sold equipment to the Saudis which has been used to spy on dissidents overseas,
including at least two associates of the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While human rights activists are alarmed by the largely unfettered provision of surveillance technology to repressive regimes in the region, up to now little has been (and can be) done to stop the transfers, which are by and large permissible under EU and American law.

In January 2018, the European Parliament passed tighter rules on the export of surveillance technology because of concerns involving the Middle East, but its effectiveness remains to be seen.

Lawsuits intended to stop the transfers have been filed in several European countries by affected individuals and human rights groups. In this regard the United States has lagged behind Europe, where many countries, consistent with their undertakings under the Wassenaar Arrangement, have placed restrictions on the export of this technology. The United States has pressed for exemptions.

Charles W. Dunne is a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC.  

Follow him on twitter: @charleswdunne

This article was reprinted with permission, from the Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.