While the United States remains the top exporter of arms to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), European nations are engaged in a fierce competition to become the region’s secondary provider. Countries such as Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have exploited this intra-European rivalry to convey political discontent or simply negotiate better bargains. For now, competition between Europe and the United States is nascent. Prestige, power, and political factors all help Washington retain its status as the most sought-after defense supplier in the region, and a majority of European defense industries remain technologically dependent on their U.S. counterparts. However, as these factors evolve over the coming years, competition could intensify, to the detriment of long-term Western and local interests. Policymakers in Europe and the United States need to take steps now to mitigate this rivalry.
Europe’s Card in the Middle East and North Africa
European defense suppliers often employ a marketing argument similar to one put forward by Russia and China; unlike the United States, they’re willing to turn a blind eye to end use. This is particularly true for France. To a lesser extent, it also applies to the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and others.
Between 2017 and 2021, however, Washington brushed aside concerns about human rights and other customary restrictive measures. Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration pursued large arms sales as a priority in itself. The policy pumped extra revenue into the U.S. economy, but it came at the expense of heightened tensions in several parts of the world—particularly the MENA region. U.S. arms were used in deadly conflicts that caused untold human rights violations and produced little-to-no strategic benefit for Washington, such as the war in Yemen. From the European perspective, Trump’s arms-exports policy encouraged even more leniency vis-à-vis MENA clients and even less coordination vis-à-vis Washington.
Now, as President Joe Biden’s administration looks to recalibrate Washington’s arms-exports policy in conjunction with a probable reduction in U.S. military involvement in MENA—and as lower oil prices may reduce the volume of arms deals in the region—the United States must reverse the destabilizing effect of Trump’s legacy. The challenge is twofold: Policymakers must (1) ensure that decreased U.S. military engagement in the region does not push MENA powers toward European or other arms suppliers; and (2) better regulate arms exports stemming from Europe.
Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE have all demonstrated a desire to develop new strategic ties away from the United States. Starting in 2014, Egypt has purchased weapons from France and Russia. During the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis of 2017–2021, Qatar did not hesitate to utilize billions of dollars’ worth of defense procurement as a way to avoid isolation and remain relevant in various Western capitals. This is not to say that Qatar is turning to the Europeans instead of, or as a possible replacement for, the United States. Washington remains an irreplaceable friend for Gulf actors to keep and cultivate. Rather, in this context, European defense suppliers are seen as a mere complement for extra safety.
New Demands—and New Sellers—in the MENA Region
Adding to the complexity, the defense market in the MENA region is undergoing several transformations. Some countries have been building an indigenous defense industrial and technological base. As these ambitions materialize, buyers’ behavior and conditions change. For instance, following the launch of Saudi Arabian Military Industries in 2017, Riyadh began imposing new demands in its purchase contracts, like technology transfers and the localization of assembly lines. This, in turn, increases the pressure on Western arms industries, as was seen with the dissolution of the French-Saudi defense agency ODAS.
Contributing further to the overall level of competition has been the arrival of new actors intent on capturing market shares away from established giants. Turkey’s recent surge as a regional power, via a slew of military expansionist endeavors across several theaters, has propelled its profile as a defense exporter. Some recipients of Turkish defense products—such as Qatar and the United Nations–recognized Government of National Accord in Libya—are motivated by political factors, while Tunisia and other nations are simply attracted by the efficiency of the cheap and popular Bayraktar TB2 combat drone and the more advanced Anka-S drone, as well as other systems. As relations between Ankara and Gulf countries thaw, there could be a boost in defense and aerospace exports from Turkey.
Changes in the global geopolitical environment also create new defense suppliers in the region. The Abraham Accords, signed in August 2020, and other normalization deals struck in its wake make it possible for Israel to pursue security- and defense-related opportunities. The UAE and other Arab countries will likely start to import defense equipment and services from Israel—especially in domains where the Jewish state is considered a pioneer, such as remotely piloted vehicles, air defense systems, and cybersecurity.
U.S. Ambivalence Sparks Rising Competition Among Europeans
Over the last ten to fifteen years, a more ambivalent and aloof Washington has indirectly sparked geopolitical ambitions across the MENA region. In Libya, Syria, Yemen, and, more recently, the Western Sahara, regional powers now seek to influence the outcomes using an array of means—including military force. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both deployed their armed forces in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, as well as for counterterrorism missions against al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt have all intervened directly or transferred arms to local allies in the Libyan conflict, in violation of a UN arms embargo.
U.S. end-user agreements—which forbid the “disposal or use of the defense article for purposes other than those for which they were furnished without first receiving written U.S. government authorization”—are thoroughly enforced, limiting the unauthorized injection or use of U.S.-made weapons in the region’s civil wars. The same cannot be said of European exporters. This asymmetry has opened the door for European defense industries—in 2014, the UAE started using French-made Mirage 2000-9s in lieu of U.S.-made F-16s to conduct airstrikes over Libya. Others have followed suit.
In October 2020, Italy snatched up a $1.2 billion Egyptian order for two European multi-use frigates (FREMM), five years after Cairo acquired the same type of frigates from France. Factors including price (the Italian warship cost half its French counterpart), credit lines, human rights, and politics prompted Egypt to change its FREMM supplier to Italy. Similarly, the political distance between Qatar and President Emmanuel Macron’s France has grown in recent years. Doha chose to buy Boxer armored fighting vehicles from Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), just three years after it had signed a contract with KMW’s French rival, Nexter.
As part of its post-Brexit vision for a “Global Britain,” the United Kingdom is staging a foreign policy comeback in the Middle East. London’s new posture includes not only the 2018 creation of a permanent military base in Bahrain, but also a more aggressive pursuit of arms exports—which will entail more intense competition against members of the European Union.
Effectively regulating arms exports between European states has not been easy. No mechanism is in place yet to mitigate disagreements regarding human rights. Discrepancies already pose a problem for some joint defense programs. As France and Germany collaborate on their common Future Combat Air System and Main Ground Combat System projects, for example, human rights concerns have been one of the sticking points between the two neighbors.
In January 2021, the Biden administration imposed a temporary freeze on U.S. arms sales concluded by the Trump administration to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including a major order for top-of-the-line F-35 fighters. The review, which may turn out to be merely a temporary formality, inspired the United Kingdom and Italy to follow suit. This, however, does not mean that other members of the EU, like France, will also align their practices with the United States.
Tempering Competition Through Conventions and Restrictions
The Biden administration must mitigate intra-European and U.S.-European arms export competition before its destabilizing effects worsen. Since Biden took office, transatlantic good will is in abundant supply. Washington should seize this moment to reintroduce teamwork to the agenda, and invite its European allies to join a new diplomatic forum designed specifically to align arms-sales standards and reduce any gaps in end-use scrutiny and human rights norms. Such a venue will facilitate a degree of harmonization on arms exports and management of their utilization by MENA buyers.
As a complement to this initiative, which should be voluntary in nature, Washington should take full advantage of its existing International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) framework. ITAR offers a means of blocking European arms exports if 5 percent or more of the weapons’ components are U.S.-made. This is how, in 2018, the United States temporarily blocked a sale of France’s Rafale jets to Egypt—the Rafale’s so-called SCALP missiles contained a U.S.-made item.
Lastly, Washington should consider expanding its end-user agreement framework so that it encompasses not only a given MENA country’s U.S.-made systems but also the weapons that nation buys from non-U.S. suppliers—like the Europeans. Most key players in the MENA region still consider the United States a vital supplier of weapons. Washington can and should use its privileged status to compel its regional partners into aligning their utilization of defense systems with U.S. standards. Without such a bold impulsion, European competition—and MENA disorder—will only escalate.