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Corruption still plagues armed forces across the Middle East

“I believe that the will of the people is resolved by a strong leadership,” the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said. “Even in a democratic society, events depend on a strong leadership with a strong power of persuasion, and not on the opinion of the masses.” This view – of powerful political and military establishments being crucial to the functioning of the state – still holds a lot of sway across the Middle East. The 2011 Arab Spring appeared to usher in a new era of democracy and accountability. However, two years later, as different bodies vie for control and militaries across the region remain powerful and shadowy, is the situation really any better?


A new report by Transparency International has found that armed forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa are continuing to operate secretively, with a high level of corruption. Respective armies assign budgets behind closed doors, award contracts nepotistically, and hinder attempts at reform. Those who attempt to expose wrong-doing frequently end up being punished themselves. This creates waste, corruption, impunity and a threat to security within the defence apparatus. Dysfunctional armed forces also undermine attempts to strengthen democracy.

The report assessed 19 countries in the region, from Saudi Arabia, to Israel, to Yemen. Every single country examined was found to have a high risk of corruption in the defence sector. The very worst countries – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – had a “critical” level of defence corruption risk. This means that in these states, the security establishment is barely accountable at all. Even the best scoring countries – Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates – still had a “high” level of risk. Regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran were somewhere in the middle, with a “very high” risk. It appears to be a case of the least bad, rather than the best.

The key problems can be broken down into several categories. The first is excessive secrecy and a lack of oversight. Oliver Cover, one of the report’s main authors, cited a “pathological” obsession with secrecy. In Algeria, generals buy weapons based on whim, rather than any long-term spending plan. In 60 per cent of countries surveyed, the defence budget is not publically available at all, while the budget of Egypt’s powerful military is 99 per cent secret. Israel, Iran, Qatar, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Syria do not even disclose the number of personnel they employ in the armed forces. Meanwhile, eighteen of the 19 countries assessed in the region don’t have a legislative committee to scrutinise the defence budget, meaning that there is very little transparency or accountability for what public money is being spent on.

A second key problem is the prevalence of nepotism. Few, if any, countries surveyed award contracts openly. In many countries networks are based on close family and business ties. In Syria, the military sector is under the control of the president and his family, while Yemen’s security apparatus remains a patronage network. “There are people with resources and something to hide,” Cover told the Financial Times. This is borne out by the fact that oil-rich countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria tended to score worse than countries with lower GDPs.

A third problem is the poor provisions for whistle-blowers. Not a single one of the countries surveyed has a credible or safe system for concerned officials to report corruption. In Syria, which remains in the throes of a bloody civil war, attempts to open up a debate on defence resulted in those involved being imprisoned.

Those are the problems. What are the effects? Of course, the countries surveyed contain an enormous range. The balance of power between political, military, and economic bodies varies hugely, as do levels of democratic accountability. Yet, as outlined above, their militaries share a propensity for secrecy and corruption, and so the knock-on effects are comparable. There is a lack of citizen engagement. The report notes that in the worst affected countries, “citizens perceive defence institutions as corrupt or indifferent to corruption”. A culture of impunity in these powerful institutions creates disillusionment and disenfranchisement among the population. In those countries which are in the process of transitioning to democracy after the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen in particular – the unaccountability of the defence establishments could undermine the whole process and exacerbate unrest. “Corruption creates division,” explains Cover.

The picture was not entirely bleak. Lebanon was praised for its transparent defence budget. Meanwhile, officials from Lebanon, Kuwait, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia acknowledged the need for reform and were even willing to meet researchers from Transparency International. Yet in countries such as Libya, the situation now – with the armed forces run by a tightly controlled, centralised body – is barely better than it was under dictator Muammar Gaddafi. As western powers continue to make money dealing arms to these unaccountable armies, and as militaries across the Middle East continue to hold a significant amount of power over the functioning of their respective countries, it appears that no serious effort is being made to address the question of corruption and transparency.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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