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Although the so-called great powers began providing security assistance to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) some two centuries ago, security assistance these days is primarily a legacy of the Cold War. During that protracted conflict, both the United States and the Soviet Union considerably enhanced their security assistance. In addition to arms supplies, these new trimmings included development assistance wrapped up in ideologically informed capitalist and communist models, respectively, coupled with incentives if recipients aligned their policies and political economies with the appropriate bloc—West or East. Cold War security assistance, in short, was part of a package deal.

The collapse of the Soviet Union rendered this all-encompassing approach unsustainable for the successor Russian state. Development assistance, ideological guidance, and membership in a bloc of aligned nations were shorn away, leaving security assistance the only major tool of Russian power projection. Even that was reduced in scope. Military alliances and intrusive engagement with recipient armed forces were supplanted almost entirely by weapons sales, coupled with unilateral gray-zone interventions.

The trajectory of U.S. security assistance to the Middle East runs parallel—albeit trailing behind the Russians by a decade or more and without the addition of extensive gray-zone activities. The disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq represented the apotheosis of the United States’ Cold War–era boots-and-all approach. That failed effort to convert Iraq into a beacon of Arab democracy—or even to constitute a legitimate, effective national government—ended, possibly forever, attempts to shape recipient nation states in America’s image. Like Russia, the United States has resorted to arms deliveries as the principal component of its security assistance. In the U.S. case, that’s supplemented by building partner capacity, or what the Department of Defense calls BPC—robust equipment sustainment programs and broader military upgrading efforts. Washington hopes BPC will allow the United States to project power at a lower cost with fewer boots on the ground than the legacy model of security assistance left over from the Cold War.

Costs and Benefits of the Post–Cold War Model of Security Assistance

Military, economic, and political factors all contributed to the United States’ Cold War victory over the Soviets in the Middle East. Had Washington not embedded weapons transfers into broader security assistance, support for development, and integration into U.S.-backed alliances, the outcome might have been different. Since then, have contemporary policymakers overweighted weapons transfers while underweighting broader security and development assistance?

Apparently yes, for three reasons.

First, weapons transfers are symbolic. Their role as a signal of the U.S. security guarantee typically outweighs their actual military value. Since the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama, various Middle Eastern governments have diversified their procurement, driven largely by concerns that the United States is actually not committed to their security—no matter how many expensive U.S. weapons systems they purchase. Failure to effectively integrate some of these weapons into the recipient militaries have not deterred their continued acquisition. This suggests that symbolic value matters even more than combat usefulness in clients’ calculations.

Robert Springborg
Robert Springborg is a non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, Rome, and Adjunct Professor, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.

Second, procurement is being diversified to restrict the influence of a predominant weapons supplier. Weapons manufacturers eager to tap into the lucrative Middle Eastern market are proliferating. The Obama administration’s ill-fated attempt to influence the Egyptian military in the wake of the July 2013 coup by suspending military assistance that October exemplifies the limited effectiveness of conditionality. Obama restored U.S. assistance to Egypt in March 2015, having gained no leverage over Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—who, in the meantime, had begun to diversify Egypt’s weapons procurement. Within two years, the United States had fallen into third place among Egypt’s weapons suppliers. France now provides 40 percent of Egypt’s weapons purchases. The United States lags behind Russia and is barely ahead of Germany, which sells more weapons to Egypt than to anyone else.

Third, costly weapons procurement and other military expenditures have contributed to economic stagnation in many Middle Eastern countries while reinforcing the political power of armed forces. Weapons transfers are paradoxically justified by the United States on the grounds they contribute to stability—a half-truth, at best. For the most part, weapons transfers create more problems than solutions. As regimes’ political bases narrow, repression has increased, which, coupled with economic decline, has contributed to the MENA region’s chronic instability. Moreover, this instability feeds on itself. The Middle East’s increasingly fragile security environment begets more weapons acquisitions from ever more suppliers—a self-perpetuating arms spiral that benefits neither the MENA region nor the United States.

Security Assistance vs Actual Security

As individual Middle Eastern countries and the broader MENA region have become increasingly securitized, overall security has diminished. Some evidence suggests there might be a causal relationship. Between 2000 and 2018, two-thirds of overall U.S. aid allocations were development related and only one third military related. In the Middle East, however, military-related assistance made up 55 percent of a total $210 billion in U.S. overseas development assistance. During that period, over half of all U.S. military aid went to the MENA region. Middle Eastern armed forces are the world’s largest, as measured by proportion to population and by spending as a percentage of GDP. Over the first decade of the twenty-first century, countries in the MENA region spent more than twice as much on defense as a percentage of GDP than South Asia—the next highest-spending region. Of the twenty countries that spend the most on importing arms, nine are in the MENA region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2019 yearbook, Middle Eastern countries increased their arms imports by 87 percent between 2009–2013 and 2014–2018. In that latter period, MENA countries accounted for 35 percent of global arms imports and relatively impoverished Egypt became the world’s third-largest importer of arms.

Although MENA states invest disproportionately in security, they’ve often failed to adequately deliver it to their populations. In 2019, MENA countries were among the world’s least peaceful according to the Global Peace Index. Of the world’s nine most dangerous countries that year, five were in the MENA region. About 90 percent of the MENA population lives in countries more dangerous than the world average, while almost 100 million live in five of the most dangerous. The evidence thus suggests that security assistance to the MENA has not produced strong, accountable, peaceful states within a stable, safe, and secure region.

The record is not much better from the perspective of security assistance serving U.S. interests. Jihadi extremism has been substantially contained but—other than the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—it has actually posed little direct threat to the United States. The flow of oil has been maintained, but primarily because of market forces rather than militarily enforced security. The one clear interest that has been well served is Israel, which, paradoxically, is increasingly independent of the United States.

After a decade-long hiatus in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia has reentered the region as a military power. China’s economic and soft-power presence is steadily growing as well. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have become major competitors in the region’s lucrative arms markets. Iran, the United States’ principal regional opponent, has not been contained. Most Arab countries that had been closely aligned with Washington, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are increasingly militarily and strategically independent. The descent into chaos of Libya, Syria, and Yemen, coupled with increasing state fragility in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan, calls into question the continued viability of anything resembling a regional state system guided by agreed principles and interests. In the absence of such a system, the Middle East will devolve into ever-shifting alliances and conflicts in which the United States must compete with a host of actors to secure its and its allies’ interests. If U.S. security assistance were reformed, might it be able to address at least some of these challenges?

Weapons Technology and Reform of Security Assistance

Technological advances in weapons systems take two divergent forms. One is ever-greater sophistication, price, and sustainment requirements of top-of-the-line arms, especially manned aircraft. The price of F-16 fighter jets purchased by Arab countries, for example, has risen from $36 million in the early 1980s to $122 million today. Apache helicopters cost $11 million in 1995 but $61 million in 2020. The UAE is reported to be paying $10.4 billion for fifty F-35s it ordered in 2020—more than $200 million apiece. Sustainment and training costs for increasingly high-tech equipment are inflating at an even more rapid rate. In addition to carrying high costs, these weapons must also be integrated into the complex electronic battlefield control systems they’re designed to operate in—which are themselves costly to purchase and sustain. Designed primarily for use by the U.S. military, these high-tech weapons and technical systems stretch even the Pentagon’s capacities.

The second trend is occurring at the opposite end of the weapons spectrum. Sophisticated asymmetric weaponry is becoming increasingly easy to operate, inexpensive, and lethal. Unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles are the prime exemplars of this trend. Their effective use—as demonstrated, for example, by Turkey in western Libya in 2020 and by Iran against Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq in September 2019—calls into question the cost and battlefield effectiveness of more complex, expensive weapons systems. Referred to as Costco weapons by a U.S. general, they pose a challenge to the role that more valuable and high-tech weaponry plays in U.S. security assistance.

The impacts of these diverging technological trends are serious even for advanced militaries. For recipients, they necessitate more careful tailoring of procurement to needs, resources, and capacities than has previously been the case. Less able to afford, maintain, and operate the new generation of advanced weapons systems, many Middle Eastern militaries’ needs may be better served by a greater emphasis on asymmetric weapons coupled with the human and organizational components of their armed forces. Thus far, however, the high-tech arms race in the region, driven by reputational and actual needs, has not yet been impacted by careful cost-benefit analyses of those weapons.

Toward More Effective U.S. Security Assistance    

Returning to the Cold War model of comprehensive security assistance coupled with broad support for development is impossible. What can be done is to reconfigure bilateral security assistance while simultaneously encouraging the creation of Middle Eastern security architecture. The key is to shift weight between the principal legs of security assistance—which are, in order of present importance, weapons transfers, sustainment of those weapons, training and advice, and institution building. Deficient institutions in recipient countries pose obstacles not only to building and operating effective and efficient militaries, but also to achieving appropriate balances between commitments to national security and other public needs. As MENA militaries become more complex, lethal, and expensive, there is a growing need for their development and operations to be shaped by strategies, budgets, and internal organization informed by threat and capability analyses. The region’s ministries of defense, typically operating autonomously from civilian governments and staffed overwhelmingly by military personnel with skill sets insufficiently related to these tasks, need to be reformed and incorporated into and controlled by other governmental institutions. The United States has a comparative advantage in supporting such institution building. The potential payoffs from that kind of development far outweigh the acquisition of an expensive new weapons system.

At the regional level, security would be most improved by limiting arms flows. But conditionality, as indicated by the Obama administration’s attempts to deal with Sisi, is ineffective. Arms embargoes are equally misguided. In the early 1950s, an attempt to impose one on Egypt ended in the 1955 Egyptian-Czechoslovakian arms deal—a classic Cold War failure for the West. In the wake of the first Gulf War, the administration of former U.S. president George H. W. Bush aimed to restrict the transfer of nonconventional and conventional weapons to Iraq, seeking support from major arms providers. It proved to be a dead letter.

This unfortunate history paradoxically implies that a broader approach, rather than one focused exclusively on limiting weapons transfers, may have a greater chance of success. Policymakers should look to models that emerged during the Cold War and managed to improve communications, reduce the chances of conflict, and limit arms races. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the largest example, composed of fifty-seven member states, and probably most relevant. A Middle East security framework is long past due. An effort to build one might produce greater dividends for U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration than a plethora of engagements intended to reduce specific conflicts and their impacts in a host of regional settings.


The current structure of U.S. security assistance is serving neither U.S. nor regional states’ interests. It is far too centered on weapons transfers, and deeply insufficient when it comes to improving national institutions or creating a regional security framework. Security assistance recipients are bearing costs that are disproportionate to their resources and likely their actual defense needs. The weapons they acquire aren’t even well-suited to countering the most vital threats to their national security. It is long past time to initiate a thorough review of U.S. security assistance, and to engage other providers and recipients in an overdue discussion of the ways and means to obtain greater security at lower costs.

Robert Springborg is a non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs, Rome, and Adjunct Professor, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Formerly he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the holder of the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, His most recent books are Egypt (2018) and Political Economies of the Middle East and North Africa (2020), both published by Polity Press.