Militarising the Middle East

Militarising the Middle East
Comment: Middle East countries are leading the world in military spending, and this is sending many on a collision course for economic disaster, conflict and power struggles, argues Robert Springborg.
6 min read
19 May, 2016
Resources are being sucked out of the civilian economy into the military [Anadolu]

The Middle East and North Africa is already the world's most militarised region and is set to build-up in arms more rapidly than any place in the world. Middle Eastern armed forces are the world's largest per proportion of the population. They also spend more on them as a percentage of GDP than other parts of the world, with an average of 5.1 percent of economic output going towards their militaries, compared to around 1 percent for European Union countries.

In the first decade of the 21st century, MENA countries spent more than twice as much on defence - as a percentage of their GDP - than South Asia, the next highest-spending region. The region also increased its arms imports by 71 percent in the last decade, spending $135 billion in 2014 alone. The Global Militarization Index ranks the MENA as the world's most militarised region. Thirteen of the region's countries in 2015 ranked in the top 29 of the 151 countries assessed by the index, compared to ten when the index was launched in 1990. Non-state militarised actors are also more prevalent - and destructive - in MENA than in any other region. Nine of the top 20 countries in the Global Terrorism Index are in the MENA.

Developments in various countries illustrate the regional trend toward ever greater militarisation. Saudi Arabia has the world's third largest military budget; it doubled in the decade ending in 2015. The UAE is, after Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest purchaser of US weapons. Algeria spends more on its military than any other country in Africa, having increased its defence budget by 176 percent since 2004 and by a third over the last five years. The military's share of Tunisia's 2015 budget increased more than that of any other part of government, taking its annual allocation to almost $1 billion in that cash-starved country. The Palestinian Authority in 2015 spent more than $250 billion dollars on its security forces, far and away the highest expenditure category in its budget, and about a third of total "governmental" expenditures.

The UAE is, after Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest purchaser of US weapons.

The Arab monarchies are militarising at particularly rapid rates. Three of the GCC states have recently introduced conscription. Morocco's military has swelled to over 200,000, and Jordan - now the world's eighth most militarised country - has one soldier for every 65 citizens, the highest ratio in the Arab world. Its military personnel are more numerous than France's, whose population is some eight times larger.

Saudi Arabia has become the world's largest weapons importer, with its $9.8 billion in weapon purchases in 2015 representing a 50 percent increase over the previous year. The UAE has become the world's fourth largest arms importer, bringing in more weaponry than all of Western Europe. Kuwait has built its forces back to 17,000, their size when they dissolved in the face of the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Qatar announced in November 2014 the intent to purchase $23 billion in arms from the UK, on top of a $11 billion order for military hardware from the United States. Parade ground forces not so long ago, monarchial militaries are in the process of equaling - and even surpassing - European armed forces in materiel, if not in size.

Consequences of militarisation

The consequences for the MENA's economic development are devastating. Resources are sucked out of the civilian economy into the military, where they are subject to massive corruption. The Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index of Transparency International singles out MENA as the world region most susceptible to military corruption. Of the five regions assessed in 2015 regarding the prevalence of defence-sector corruption, MENA comes out worst. Thirteen of its 19 countries receive scores of E or F, the bottom two grades on the scale, placing MENA well below even Sub-Saharan Africa.

Exorbitant as they are, direct costs of overblown militaries and the opportunity costs of manpower and other resource commitments, may be less deleterious for economies than indirect costs. Militarisation deters foreign direct investment in sectors such as manufacturing that are inherently risk-averse. Encroachment of the military into economies undermines private sectors, impedes accountability, and places military officers in economic decision-making roles for which they are ill-equipped, as is so manifestly the case in President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's Egypt.

Parade ground forces not so long ago, monarchial militaries are in the process of equaling - and even surpassing - European armed forces.

The region's stability is being undermined by armed conflicts within and between states. Humanitarian disasters are becoming commonplace; the MENA now produces more refugees and internally displaced people than any other region. As militarisation proceeds, the political, administrative and economic roles of armed forces grow steadily greater, reinforcing or creating altogether new non-democratic, non-inclusive political economies, the very nature of which is inimical to sustainable economic development. 

Many guilty parties

Militarisation also poses a threat to domestic political stability, especially in monarchies, where ruling families are becoming more directly involved in their armed forces. The highest profile case is that of the Saudi prince parachuted into military command Mohammed bin Salman, who was appointed by his father King Salman as Saudi defence minister in January 2015 despite his lack of military training. His cousin, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, remains head of the Saudi National Guard. Rumours of his impending dismissal are reflective of intensifying royal competition over military commands, not only in Saudi Arabia but in the Arab monarchies more generally.

The region's stability is being undermined by armed conflicts within and between states.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also exemplifies growing interconnections between ruling families and their militaries. It also reflects one of the consequences of those interconnections - the increasing militarisation of their country's foreign policies. Sheikh Mohammed, promoted to general the same month he was made commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has been the architect of the country's increasingly aggressive policies not only in the Gulf, but as far afield as Libya and Syria. Direct involvement of ruling families in armed forces is likely to intensify and render more violent intra-ruling family power struggles, especially those over succession. With more princes having their fingers on triggers, the possibility that they will pull them during domestic struggles grows.

MENA militarisation is driven by domestic and regional factors, but in the absence of external complicity it could not have reached its present level. Driven by profit, power projection, security and other motives, a host of countries, ranging from Russia and China,  to the US, France, Italy, the UK, Canada and others in the "West", are competing ever more intensely to supply, sustain and train MENA militaries. There are, in sum, many guilty parties contributing to the militarisation that is wreaking havoc with MENA political economies.

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations.

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

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.