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The United States is, by far, the largest provider of weapons to countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Between 2000 and 2019, it supplied 45 percent of the arms sold to the region. For decades, the United States has exported arms to MENA states under the assumption that this will help solidify alliances, give the U.S. military access to the region, and—combined with U.S. military training and advice—produce strong, legitimate militaries capable of defending these countries against external threats.

Instead, in many cases, U.S. arms have helped reinforce the corruption and rent-seeking that underpin state fragility throughout the region. And these arms—which were meant to provide some leverage over states’ domestic and foreign behavior—have instead often provided regimes with a source of personal enrichment and political patronage, as well as tools used for repression, surveillance, and to stymie popular calls for reform.

The new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden has pledged to make anticorruption an important pillar of American foreign policy. It made a good start by putting a hold on arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, although some sales have gone forward since then. For Biden to succeed, improving governance of the arms trade to MENA states and reinvigorating anticorruption efforts vis-à-vis American arms exports must be important components of the administration’s foreign policy.

Corruption in Arms Sales: Choice or Accident?

MENA regimes often purchase arms in quantities that far exceed their defensive needs or, as prestige purchases, do not even address the challenges they face. One reason is well known: purchasing arms helps incentivize the United States and other Western states to provide a security umbrella. Another, less-examined motivation for arms purchases is the role weapons sales play in maintaining corrupt, brittle, despotic governments. The rent-seeking and patronage associated with arms purchases by MENA governments are often the intended results, not unfortunate side effects.

Arms sales have been a significant source of personal enrichment for many elites in these countries, helping to incentivize their tight grip on power. As such, they have largely refused to provide meaningful arms procurement oversight. For example, the United Kingdom documented that BAE Systems and its agents paid at least 6 billion British pounds in bribes to the Saudi royal family between 1985 and 2006. The Saudi government has recently accused Saad al-Jabri, a former Interior Ministry deputy, of misspending $11 billion of a $19.7 billion Saudi counterterrorism fund. Al-Jabri argues that the payments were legal and often “a reward for a job well done.” In Iraq, the defense minister was summoned before the legislature in 2016 to answer allegations of billions of dollars lost to bribes in his ministry. He laid the blame on members of parliament who had lobbied on behalf of favored defense companies. Scandals such as these demonstrate the impunity enjoyed by leaders in the region, who will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain it.

But the bribes and kickbacks associated with various arms procurement contracts do not sit solely with regime elites. Some filter down through patronage to solidify crucial support—helping elites remain in power this way can be the primary motivation for some arms procurement. For example, through a co-production agreement with the United States Egypt manufactures M-1 tanks that are ill-suited for its antiterrorism needs, but they provide jobs and patronage through the associated military-run businesses.

An especially effective method of spreading patronage is through defense offset contracts—sweetener side contracts associated with large arms deals. Even if the U.S. defense contractors involved have not violated any laws (such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA), the combination of extreme secrecy and lack of safeguards from conflicts of interest and kickbacks makes them an excellent opportunity for MENA leaders to pass contracts, jobs, and other benefits to themselves and their key supporters. In Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, for example, offset procedures and contract negotiations are not subject to a competitive tender or public disclosure. Due to this secrecy, offset agreements often emerge from leaks or other scandals. For instance, in 2017, the Intercept reported that the UAE had accepted cash as part of offset obligations that were paid to the Emirati company Tawazun Holding. As defense analyst William Hartung noted about the episode, “Offsets are a common practice in the global arms trade, and they are largely unregulated. . . . I’m less familiar with the idea of using cash payments, which seem at best a form of legalized bribery.” In 2006, Raytheon helped establish a shrimp farm in Saudi Arabia as part of its offset obligations. The fact that intermediaries such as offset brokers often handle these obligations further obscures the financial flows associated with defense procurement agreements.

Jodi Vittori
Jodi Vittori is a nonresident scholar in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program. She is an expert on the linkages of corruption, state fragility, illicit finance, and U.S. national security.
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Arms contracts also provide the coercive means to remain in power and help prevent citizen reform efforts. Just in 2019, the United States sold at least $3 million in small arms to Qatar, $1.3 million to the UAE, and $1 million to Kuwait. While these weapons are standard fare for militaries, they can also be used by domestic law enforcement. Because these arms exports were all direct commercial sales rather than part of the Foreign Military Sales program, little information about them has been publicly disclosed. And tracking U.S. small arms exports recently become even harder: new U.S. regulations in 2020 moved oversight of many types of weapons—including pistols, sniper rifles, and AR-15s—from the State Department to the Commerce Department, which has looser rules for vetting exports and no congressional notification requirement.

U.S. arms exports can also include surveillance technology. In one example, the UAE’s Project Raven program, signals intelligence experts working for U.S. contractor CyberPoint created a surveillance web capable of tracking and spying on everyone from reform-minded civil society members to U.S. citizens. CyberPoint’s contract with the Emirati government was undertaken with permission from the State Department and National Security Agency. This has enabled the Emirati regime to monitor any emergent dissident networks and arrest activists before protests even erupt.

An Arms Sales Black Hole

MENA regimes can get away with using arms procurement for personal enrichment, patronage, and coercion because the entire region lacks effective security sector transparency and accountability. According to Transparency International’s Government Defense Integrity Index (GDI), nearly every single MENA country is rated as having “very high” or “critical” levels of corruption risk. Only Tunisia receives a grade of “high” risk. In most MENA countries, arms procurement decisions are made solely by a tiny coterie of regime insiders, there are few or no external audits of arms-related accounts, and few or no protections against conflicts of interest or outright kickbacks. In some cases, those who attempt to report defense corruption have found themselves censured or worse.

The corruption associated with arms procurement has put U.S. interests in the region on increasingly shaky ground. Arms purchased for reasons other than national defense can rarely be effectively employed or sustained. Instead, they often contribute to the conditions that make states fragile to begin with. Between 2003 and 2011, for instance, the United States spent $20 billion to build up the 800,000-member Iraqi army. But due to corruption and politicization, it fell apart facing the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Mosul a mere three years later. Since the Camp David Accords in 1979, Egypt has received about $1.3 billion per year in U.S. military aid. Nonetheless, it made a poor showing as part of the allied coalition in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and its antiterrorism campaign in the Sinai over the last decade has failed to achieve its stated goals.

An Entry for Chinese and Russian Influence

General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, has asserted that the primary way for Washington to confront China’s and Russia’s growing influence in the MENA region is through arms sales to its partners. The corruption and patronage reinforced through American arms sales in the region and the dearth of accountability or citizen oversight of defense contracts in general in the region provide avenues for increased Russian and Chinese influence. Both countries aggressively use corruption as a foreign policy tool. Neither country has anticorruption safeguards in their arms sales processes, and both have used corruption to extend their influence in the region. As Russia and China increase their security assistance, the arms procurement sector is an easy target for them to purchase leverage from regional elites through corruption. The lack of countermeasures such as a free press, vibrant civil society, and robust parliamentary oversight means there are few checks to prevent great power meddling in this manner.

Institutionalizing and Formalizing Anticorruption in U.S. Security Assistance Practices

These threats posed by arms sales are not new, and wholesale new legislation is not needed to address them. Congressional hearings in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War highlighted how corruption associated with U.S. arms sales—including the revelation that U.S. defense contractors had paid bribes to Saudi officials—undermined national security. The response was legislation like the FCPA and the Arms Export Control Act, which provide a sound framework to reevaluate U.S. arms exports to MENA regimes and ensure they do not undermine popular calls for reform and produce further fragility. What is needed, however, are amendments to current legislation plus robust regulations to improve U.S. security assistance.

First, the U.S. Congress should legislate that the Defense Department conduct risk assessments and monitoring to help ensure lethal and nonlethal weapons exports are not inadvertently exacerbating corruption and authoritarianism in recipient states. Red lines and contract amendment or termination procedures should be established in case security sector governance deteriorates or fails to meet benchmarks.

Second, the transparency of U.S. arms sales has suffered lately. Formerly public information has been newly classified, and Congress has received less-detailed information about arms sales, in addition to the lack of small arms sales information and offset contract transparency. Congress should mandate new transparency standards for timely public disclosure of arms sales, and especially demand more detailed data on direct commercial sales as well as any small or light weapons sales approved by the Commerce Department.

The U.S. government should also enhance its corruption-related checks of arms sales. Direct commercial sales of arms undergo significant screening of all parties—including intermediaries like finance and insurance brokers—as well as a review of political contributions and marketing fees. Arms sold under the Foreign Military Sales program and under the auspices of the Commerce Department, however, do not. Published summaries of offset contracts and beneficial ownership information associated with arms contracts should be required, and corruption risks associated with the contracts specifically assessed.

Finally, the most important constituency to monitor arms procurement contracts are the citizens themselves—through elected representatives—of the recipient countries. The 2019 GDI noted that only two countries—Kuwait and Tunisia—had any structure at all to allow for some legislative involvement in defense issues; most MENA countries had zero parliamentary or public oversight. Some, such as Egypt, Kuwait, and the UAE, criminalize unauthorized scrutiny of the defense sector or the distribution of unauthorized news about the armed forces. While U.S. security cooperation programs are now mandated to help develop healthier civil-military relations in recipient countries—including the role of parliamentary oversight of defense matters—it is clear that the U.S. military has its work cut out. The corruption and patronage associated with arms procurement are often deliberate choices rather than inadvertent side effects. A high degree of political will and associated conditionality will be necessary if elites in MENA states are to begin gradually improving transparency, accountability, and anticorruption institutions at home.