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MENA defence spending is rising but is security increasing?

November 3, 2015 at 3:41 pm

In addition to highlighting the poor oversight of armed forces in the Middle East, including secret defence budgets and lack of legitimacy and transparency, a recent report from British watchdog Transparency International raises questions about how unchecked spending and illicit arms transfers contribute to conflict, and links corruption to radicalisation.

“Defence spending is rising but is security increasing?” asked the report. “When governments are judged not to be operating in the interests of people, the loss of legitimacy can spark unrest and fuel violence. It added that corruption inside armed forces has contributed to regional instability and, in some countries, radicalisation.

The Government Defence anti-corruption index (GI) looked at 17 Middle East North Africa (MENA) countries. The assessment, which was done over a period of two years, consisted of 77 questions. For each question, the government in focus was given a score from 0 to 4. The overall percentage of marks determined which band the government was placed in. Of the 17 countries looked at, 11 received an F (critical risk), 5 received an E (very high risk) and one country, Tunisia, received a D (high risk). Two important reasons behind Tunisia’s result is that the defence budget is made available to the public and that two parliamentary committees scrutinise the country’s defence spending.

Excessive secrecy in the management of defence budgets and lack of transparency over competence and intent has implications for fuelling regional arms races, said the report. Institutional weakness and lack of transparency in the security sector facilitate cross-border arms movements, which risk spurring regional insecurity, which in turn encourages more military spending. “I’m guessing there are some in the region who draw the conclusion, looking across at conflicts in the region, that maintaining stability requires keeping a lid on popular demands for greater citizen oversight and better governance,” said Katherine Dixon, Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme Director. However, according to Dixon, the lesson is the opposite. “It’s the failure of governments to respond to the needs of people that results in a loss of legitimacy and ultimately violent explosions.”

MENA’s military expenditure is high; the report’s seventeen countries are estimated to have spent more than $135 billion in 2014, and the overall trend is that it is increasing, especially among the Gulf States. According to Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Arms and Military Expenditure Programme, the reasons behind some of the Gulf increases in defence spending can be attributed to the current volatile environment in the region, including the fact that some of these countries see Iran as a threat. “They also see what has happened to the revolutions in Syria and Libya and don’t want this to happen to their countries,” added Wezeman. On top of that, there is a growing trend to want to be able to intervene in other countries in the region, which has been seen in for example in Syria and Yemen.

According to SIPRI, Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest defence spender, has increased its security expenditure by 17 per cent in ten years, reaching $80.8 billion in 2014. According to the report, the Gulf country passes arms to groups unable to purchase weapons themselves due to sanctions or lack of money, including weapons from Croatia on behalf of the anti-government rebels in Syria in 2013. Another Gulf state, Qatar, has also, without oversight, been able to arm different groups in the region.

With the region’s ongoing conflicts, including the Libyan power struggle, Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian civil war and Yemeni conflict, the risk is that military expenditure fuels more violence. The US, UK, France and Russia are some of the biggest arms dealers with the MENA region, but there is well-documented evidence that arms from a number of countries reach non-state actors such as Daesh/ISIS. “Arms trade agreements are regulated by arms export regulations,” explained Wezeman, but it is difficult to monitor the whereabouts of weapons once they have been exported. In principle, the buyer needs to sign a document which states that they will be the only ones to use those arms and if they want to supply them to someone else they first need to ask for permission from the supplier.

There is also a small elite in many of these countries who buy arms without scrutiny, explained Wezeman, and the risk is that they are not acting in the interests of their people. In Qatar, for example, the report concluded that there is no oversight or accountability. Transparency International described its arms purchasing as “seemingly bizarre.” Why does Qatar need over 100 tanks given its small size? Furthermore, in many of these countries there is aggressive marketing by the arms companies, often with strong support from their national governments, he added.

In addition, in Iraq, despite the fact that the US has given $24 billion for training and equipping the Iraqi security services since 2003, the air force has faced problems with operating American fighter jets. One Iraqi general argued that lack of advanced weapons had contributed to its inability to stop the growth of Daesh/ISIS. The Iraqi army has also proved inefficient due to corrupted personnel systems and poor controls on troops. “Corruption has fundamentally undermined leadership across the armed forces,” the report explained.

Corruption is a powerful enabler of conflict, argued Dixon. “The Taliban, Boko Haram and ISIS have all drawn on deep public anger at the abuse of official power to secure recruits.” Fighters belonging to ISIS in Iraq and Syria have claimed that they are fighting to overthrow corrupt regimes and in Yemen, the Houthis have, in the same way, mobilised behind advocacy of injustice. Apart from Tunisia and UAE, according to Transparency International’s research, the public believes that the defence sector is nonchalant about tackling corruption. “Corruption feeds the proliferation of arms, facilitated by poor export controls systems, while destroying from within the very institutions that are tasked with tackling the consequences,” concluded Dixon, taking the Iraqi army as an example. In order to build trust and legitimacy, Transparency International recommends increasing the engagement between the defence sector and civil society through media briefings, meetings and information sharing.

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