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Why defence sales are undermining national security

13th April 2016

Finally lawmakers from several states are starting to raise serious doubts about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The Swedish Parliament began the debate last June with a report proposing defence exports should be subject to a ‘democracy criterion’, but last month the Dutch Parliament passed a bill calling for the government to end weapons exports, while the British Committees on Arms Export Controls has just published evidence submitted as part of an inquiry into arms sales to the Gulf. Then, this week, a US Senator, Chris Murphy, finally articulated what many of his security focussed colleagues must surely have been thinking for years: weapons sales to Saudi are simply not in the US’s national security interest.

Saudi is now the largest importer of defence equipment worldwide, the third largest military spender, and has provided a significant boost to the profits of defence industries across Europe and the US. But before capitalising on the evident short term opportunity, the question exporting governments ought to be asking is whether transferring vast amounts of advanced military capability to the Middle East is really contributing to regional stability and security. Saudi’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war throws into sharp relief the underlying risks of exporting military capability to states where there is a significant risk of diversion, corruption vulnerability within defence institutions is high, and ruling elites face barely any checks and balances on their decision-making. And as Murphy points out, Saudi’s venture in Yemen, fuelled by U.S.-made weapons is “clearly creating more, not less, space for extremist groups to operate”.

But this is only the most recent evidence that Saudi might not be the trusted defence partner the West would like it to be. Saudi has a track record of passing arms to groups that are unable to purchase weapons themselves due to sanctions or a lack of funds – whether buying Russian arms on behalf of the Egyptian government, supplying weapons to Syrian opposition groups, or marketing for export weapons that are only licensed for their own use. And yet leading western nations continue to push deals through to the Saudis and other similarly dubious recipients. So the public in the US and Europe might rightly ask: is a close defence relationship with such governments a great bet for our common security in the long term?

It’s not just an ethical question – governments that do not enjoy popular legitimacy and are squandering large portions of public spending on arms are fundamentally unstable. Many of the US, UK and other European nation’s closest defence partners in the Gulf are spending more on defence as a percentage of GDP than anywhere else in the world. But despite the high level of spending on security, they are often ill-equipped to respond effectively to security challenges. And not just because they’re making some crazy buying decision – though that’s also a factor; as one retired U.S. military officer interviewed for our Government Defence Index put it, Saudi Arabia “maintains an inventory of many types of Western equipment, really a mishmash of equipment, often purchased based more on political rationale, or for corrupt personal reasons.”

The fact is that well-armed, yet poorly governed militaries, are a threat to state stability. In Saudi, decisions over the vast sums poured into international weapons deals are often made by individual, high-ranking members of the elite with little oversight. Secrecy is paramount, including between ministries. The publics in these countries know it – and it creates popular mistrust. The irony of course is that states like Saudi Arabia end up with a highly-equipped security structure to respond to external threats – but the biggest threat to the country’s security is that the government is so bloated and illegitimate that populations get frustrated and toss them out. In the end, corrupt governments that are not responsive to the demands of their population are the architects of future security crises.

And yet despite such evident signs of fragility in states suffering from high levels of corruption, many ostensibly responsible governments continue to issue export licences to these countries and actively promote sales. In the first 9 months of 2015, the UK alone issued 152 licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia totalling £2.8bn. Nine of these licenses, together worth more than £1bn were for bombs, torpedoes, rockets and missiles.

But there’s more to it than the misguided idea as Chris Murphy puts it of “backing our friends’ play, no matter the consequences”. The issue is complicated for many governments across Europe by the reliance of defence industries on exports to corrupt regimes. In the U.S., defence budgets are some of the hardest to cut, and the domestic market is the largest worldwide; US companies can therefore succeed even without exports, including funding the necessary R&D to make them competitive. In contrast, domestic markets in Europe are simply too small to provide the economies of scale to enable a major defence company to survive, never mind to retain capability competitiveness.

The challenge of course is that European officials are often left pushing defence sales in places where they know that large and secretive defence budgets coupled with corrupt regimes risk creating instability in the longer term. It’s hard to argue for example that spending 30% of the public budget on defence in Saudi Arabia is in the public or national interest, when the government is now having to look to international lenders to fund budget shortfalls.

In the end, smarter thinking is needed to ensure that Europe’s vital defence industries are able to operate sustainably, but also responsibly. Relying on governments with weak governance but a well-armed security sector to keep them going is hardly a shrewd move – such government’s make for very unreliable partners. Of course European governments needs to sustain a strong independent defence capability, but that can’t be at the expense of contributing to inequality, poverty, and instability elsewhere.

Top photo: Flickr / RA.AZ.