‘Peace doesn’t pay the bills’: Profiting from a war-torn
By Sharif Nashashibi
April 19, 2015 "ICH"
- Secretary of State John Kerry
said 9 April the US would support any Middle Eastern state that felt
threatened by Iran, and would not "stand by" if Tehran destabilised the region.
It would be naive to think that this is a display of American altruism. This is
about money, particularly in the form of weapons sales. After all, war - or even
just the threat of it - is profitable, especially for those supplying arms but
not actually fighting.
Weapons exports provide massive economic benefits, which
translate to political benefits, domestically and in terms of influence with
clients. The Middle East and North Africa has long been a theatre of combat
- often on numerous fronts - and hence among the most lucrative markets on the
planet. However, weapons purchases have skyrocketed in recent years as unrest,
tension and war between and within states have increased markedly.
The US accounts for almost half of all arms sales to the
Middle East, followed by Russia and the UK. Weapons sales to member states of
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rose by 71% over the past five years,
accounting for 54% of imports to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates have become the world's second and fourth largest arms importers
The Arab states of Algeria and neighboring Morocco are
Africa's largest and second largest weapons importers respectively. Morocco's
purchases increased 11-fold over the same period.
"The GCC states, along with Egypt, Iraq, Israel and Turkey...
are scheduled to receive further large orders of major arms in the coming
said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute, the world's best-known collector of defense spending
and weapons trade statistics.
The very countries that bemoan regional conflict - the US,
Russia, China and European states - fuel and sustain it by enthusiastically
selling many billions of dollars of weaponry to warring parties. Bleating on
about loyalty to allies and the need for diplomacy is a facade - war means
business, and business is booming.
Arms suppliers derive maximum benefit from just the right
amount of destabilisation: enough to make clients bulk-buy, but not enough to
existentially threaten them or disrupt energy supplies. That is why, for
example, the US profited so immensely from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - it
armed both sides, resulting in a war of attrition that lasted almost a decade.
Similarly, the Arab Spring, Arab-Iranian tensions and the rise
of the Islamic State, among other current crises, have been an economic boon to
those who wipe away crocodile tears with one hand and sign weapons contracts
with the other. Operation Decisive Storm over Yemen will no doubt add to the
Russia's arms industry has benefitted from the turmoil in
Syria and Egypt, as well as threats of an American or Israeli military attack
against Iran. Weapons exports to Damascus have increased since the Syrian
Moscow is a major supplier to Iran, whose military expenditure
is on the rise amid increasing involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
This week saw an
agreement to deliver the S-300 anti-missile rocket system to Tehran, despite
strong American and Israeli objections.
Russia also benefitted from the souring of American-Egyptian
relations following the partial US cut in military aid to Cairo amid the
latter's crackdown on dissent. Egypt, wracked by increasing violence - in
particular a growing insurgency in the Sinai - swiftly turned to Russia to fill
Moscow, the world's second-largest weapons exporter after the
US, has happily obliged. In August last year, President Vladimir Putin
promised Cairo that it would speed up delivery of billions of dollars in
arms. The American response has been to lift its restrictions on weapons
deliveries to Egypt. It was
reported last month that this will allow for shipments of 12 F-16 aircraft,
20 Harpoon missiles and up to 125 M-1 Abrams tank upgrades.
This highlights the by-product of military sales: that
suppliers turn a blind eye to their clients' abuses, citing only those committed
by their rivals' clients. As such, selective talk of human rights has led only
to more repression regionally and a heightened sense of impunity. These arms
sales "do not just provide military support for abusive regimes, they also send
a clear sign of political support,"
said Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Russia and the West are also vying for weapons sales to Iraq.
US government approvals for weapons sales to Baghdad nearly tripled last year to
almost $15 billion, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pleaded this month for
"The intensifying battle between Iraq's depleted armed forces
and Islamic State militants… has spurred demand for big-ticket equipment,
including fighter jets, attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles," the Wall
reported in December.
The Arab Spring, proxy wars between Iran and Arab states, and
the spread of jihadism - all interrelated - have contributed to a heightened
sense of external and internal threats across the region. These phenomena are
largely a result of repression, and have been addressed the same way, with a
focus on military power and authoritarianism rather than reforms and rights.
Little wonder, then, that the talk these days is of
cooperation with the region's autocrats - they are the ones buying the most
weapons. A democratic, peaceful Middle East and North Africa is far less
profitable. Arms exporters will never say so, but peace does not pay the bills.
Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.
He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The
National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the
International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently
balanced reporting" on the Middle East.