Exporting violence: State of Art and Impact of the Arms Trade in the Middle East


In early December several human rights and arms control organizations signed a letter opposing the Trump administration’s deal to sell more than $23bn in advanced weapons systems to the UAE. The deal includes 50 advanced stealth F-35 jet fighters- considered to be the world’s most advanced fighter jet-, 18 Reaper armed drones- the second-largest sale of US drones to a single country- and more than 14,000 bombs and munitions (Al Jazeera, 2020). Despite the serious consequences that this deal can have in shifting the balance of power in the region and for the exacerbation of conflicts and human rights violations- given the UAE involvement in Libya and Yemen-, the US senate has failed to block the massive arms sale. While the global arms trade has continuously expanded since the end of the Cold War, more countries have joined the US in this business. The US, Russia, China, France, and the UK sell more than 70% of all weapons manufactured worldwide and they are all permanent members of the UN Security Council, the body charged with maintaining international peace and security.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the EU-member states together are the second-largest exporter of arms after the US. In 2015-19 the top five EU arms exporters- France, Germany, the UK, Spain, and Italy- have been responsible for 23 percent of global arms transfer, with an increase in numbers by France, Germany, and Spain in the last two years (Wezeman et al, 2020: 4). This article aims at exploring the linkage between the arms trade and armed conflicts in the Middle East. In order to do so, in the first part of the article I will provide a brief introduction to the legal framework regulating international and EU arms trade with the objective to point out the contradictory positions of exporter States in relation to their commitment to human rights and peace. Subsequently, the trends and state of art of the arms transfer will be analyzed, focusing on the impact that arms export has in the Middle East, in terms of increasing regional insecurity, violence, and human rights violations. In the last part of the article, some conclusions will be drawn on the key drivers and new developments for the arms industry and some reflections will be provided on the impact of Covid-19 on the global arms trade.


Legal framework for international and EU arms export

Entered into force in 2014, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) regulates the international transfer of conventional arms and it has been signed by 130 States and ratified by 110. Drawing on the Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA), the ATT establishes the exporting States’ responsibility to verify the final destination and use of the arms exported, in order to ensure the respect of International Humanitarian Law.

In addition to the ATT and their respective national laws, the EU Member States are legally bound by the 2008 EU Common Position on Exports of Military Technology and Equipment. The Common Position sets out eight criteria to be followed by national officers of the EU Member States with the aim to carry out adequate risk assessments. In addition, the Common Position aims at improving transparency by encouraging the Member States to report their arms exports activities. The EU Member States therefore are obliged to evaluate and monitor their arms export process to ensure compliance with the legal framework abovementioned. Nonetheless, very little is done in terms of accountability when States are found to breach such criteria; as a result the legal framework regulating arms trade still presents relevant gaps that guarantee the exporter States certain liberty of decision in approving arms transfers, even to countries affected by armed conflicts or that have unstable political and security situations.

In June 2019, the UK’s Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s licensing decisions concerning the military exports to Saudi Arabia have been unlawful. It has been proven, in fact, that the arms exported to Saudi Arabia from several countries, including the UK, have been extensively used against civilians during the Yemen conflict. The decision of the Court of Appeal is undoubtedly important since it sets a legal precedent in which the UK’s government has been held responsible for not investigating the human rights violations committed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition before issuing the licenses to sell weapons. As a result, the government was forced to stop new arms export licenses and to retake all the decisions regarding arms export to Saudi Arabia in compliance with the law. The restrictions were extended also for the Saudi coalition (CAAT, 2020). However, to date, the UK’s government, after filing an appeal to the Supreme Court, continues to export weapons to Saudi Arabia. Despite this being a national decision of a former EU Member State, it opens a debate on State’s responsibility for arms transfers, while showing the weaknesses of national and international regulation.


Trends of the arms trade in the Middle East

SIPRI Arms Transfer Database provides an interesting overview of the past and current trends of international arms transfers. Of particular interest is the role of the Middle East as one of the major receivers of weapons and the geopolitical role that some countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Turkey are playing in the region. Five of the world’s top 10 arms-importing States in 2015–19 were in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, which received 35 percent of arms transfers to the region, Egypt (16 percent), the UAE (9.7 percent), Iraq (9.7 percent) and Qatar (9.6 percent) (SIPRI, 2020).

The analysis of the military expenditure in the region shows not only a general trend towards militarization but, more importantly, reveals a tendency of some Middle Eastern countries for the procurement of weapon systems that are more and more sophisticated in terms of technology and range. These recent developments are strictly linked to their securitization policies as well as their strategic interests in the region and their involvement in intra-state conflicts or territorial disputes. A clear example is the progressive adoption of land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), with Iran that has further developed the 351/Quds-1 LACMs and has supplied the new version- the so-called Quds-2- to non-state actors, namely the Yemen’s Houthi Movement (Ansarullah). According to the International Institute for Security Studies: “Iran may be the only state to have supplied a LACM to a non-state actor, but several countries in the region either already field or are in the process of acquiring such missiles” (IISS, 2020). Alongside LACMs there is also the use of C4ISR systems (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), electronic and multi-role warfare aircraft, AWAC (Airborne Warning and Control) systems, and the acquisition of AI and autonomous weapons (Tan 2020: 4). Few other characteristics of the global arms market, such as its competitiveness caused by globalization and the rise of local defense industries, are contributing to the arms flows to the Middle East. The increase in military expenditure can also be reconducted to the expansion of the maritime power of some states. The recent tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean have shed a light on the importance that maritime security has and could have in the future. New developments in technology are thus affecting also the maritime field and, given that historically, the three Gulf of the MENA region- the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden- have been, and still are, the scene of regional power disputes, countries such as Israel and Turkey are investing to increase also their naval capabilities.

In conclusion, recent research proved that the key drivers of the Middle East arms import are multiple and overlapping, nonetheless, among them, there is also a lack of an effective arms control mechanism. Despite the ATT clearly states that a risk assessment should be made to ensure compliance with International Humanitarian Laws, no adequate measures or sanctions are applied to those breaching the ATT’s principle of State responsibility. This has led to the now common practice of selling weapons as a way to strengthen alliances, regardless of whether or not these arms could enhance regional insecurity, facilitate human rights violations or exacerbate conflicts.


In Libya, several countries have supplied weapons to both sides of the conflict even during the UN arms embargo. On one side, Russia, France UAE, and Jordan have provided weapons and military support to Haftar’s Libyan National Army; while Turkey and Qatar have been supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA). Both sides of the conflict and their affiliated armed groups have been responsible for extrajudicial executions and abduction, torture, and disappearance of people (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Overall, weapons from 26 different countries- handguns, variants of the AK-47 automatic weapon, and antitank missiles- have been used during the Libyan conflict (Hartung and Draper, 2020: 6). In Syria, major powers such as Russia and the US as well as regional actors- Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar- have contributed to fuelling a long-lasting conflict by supplying arms and military personal. In this instance, US arms have ended up on both sides of the conflict: the Turkish and the Kurdish-Syrian ones.

Egypt has been another country that has received weapons from the US while having a questionable human rights record. According to Human Rights Watch, US combat aircraft, tanks, and attack helicopters originally devoted to a counterterrorist operation in Norther Sinai have been used instead on civilians (ibid). As it will be explained in the next paragraph, in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has used weapons received from western countries, particularly from the US and the UK, in the bombing of civilians; while Iran has instead been supporting the Houthi opposition.


Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia represents probably the most controversial importer of arms in the world and its multi-billion dollar deals with several countries- the US, Canada, and western-European States- have been the center of criticism during 2019. Why are these deals so controversial? Saudi’s military involvement in several conflicts in the Middle East makes the arms transfers in breach of the ATT’s core principle of the responsibility of arms-exporting States to ensure the respect of humanitarian law. In this case, it has been widely proven that since 2015, the arms sold to Saudi Arabia have been used in Yemen for airstrikes, ground operations, and aerial and naval blockades, contributing to what has been considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The reality is that Saudi Arabia’s high levels of military spending and arms procurement- as well as those of other Middle Eastern importers- are driven both by defensive and offensive motives (Wezeman, 2018). In other words, the militarization of Saudi Arabia is not just the result of its involvement in fighting rebel forces in Yemen, in providing support for armed groups in Syria, and in fighting Shiite minorities in its territories, but it is also the result of regional and international power struggles. Tensions between countries and the lack of transparency in military matters, as well as the new technological developments, have prompted countries in the Middle East to invest more and more to increase their military capabilities. The result is a security dilemma that has the potentiality to fuel conflicts in the region through new proxy wars similar to the ones we already witnessed in Yemen, Syria, and Libya.



To sum up, the analysis of SIPRI data on international arms transfers allows drawing some conclusions on the key drivers, trends, and new developments of such a lucrative business. States, especially in the Middle East, are prompted to increase their military power as a result of regional insecurity and power struggles, as well as the presence of intra-state conflicts and new developments in technology. To this end, in the last years, we have seen the leading military powers- the US, Russia, and China- investing funds and resources to develop new military technologies, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots”. The growing relevance of naval armaments will also affect arms trade in the future, with countries investing to expand their maritime power.

The current situation of Covid-19 is also worth to be analyzed in respect of the arms transfers. A number of recent developments, such as the Canada-Saudi Arabia or the US-UAE arms deals, have proved that the arms industry has not been greatly affected by the pandemic. Arms transfers still occurred and deals have been signed despite the call for a global ceasefire by the United Nations. The question of States’ responsibility thus comes back. Is it possible for arms-exporter States to support the global ceasefire while contributing to the militarization of States who have a controversial human rights record?

The answer is, that as long as they are not held accountable for their actions, arms-exporting States will simply accept the risk that their arms could be used for human rights abuses. As explained in the first part of the article and as the UK’s case has proved, the current regulation on arms trade does not implement legal consequences if a State is shirking its responsibilities. The legal consequences could simply entail the cessation of conduct, the reassurance of non-repetition, and the obligation to provide full reparations or compensations.

Written by Giulia Messeri



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Picture source: Rafalko, P. (2017, January 10). Middle East in Perspective: Arms Trade is Booming as Political Solutions Falter. Retrieved from: https://natoassociation.ca/middle-east-in-perspective-the-arms-trade-is-booming-as-political-solutions-falter/.