Region steps up military spending

Defence expenditure in Middle East and North Africa rose in 2012 as global spending declined. Published in MEED, 10 April 2013

One in every 10 dollars spent by the world’s armed forces last year was spent in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, according to latest figures from the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

A total of $166bn was spent on the Mena region’s armies, air forces and navies in 2012. That is more than 8 per cent higher than the figure for 2011 and makes the region second only to Russia and Eurasia, when it comes to the acceleration in military spending.

With a renewed bout of Islamist insurgency in North Africa, civil war in Syria, tensions in the Gulf over Iran’s nuclear programme, not to mention the after-effects of the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, there are plenty of reasons for governments to spend more on their armed forces. So while global military spending declined from $1.61 trillion in 2011, to $1.58 trillion in 2012 (mainly because of reductions in the budgets of US and European armed forces), expenditure in the Mena region bucked that trend and rose.

Big spenders

In terms of total dollars spent, the Mena region still trails North America, Europe, and Asia, while in per capita terms, it is in third place behind North America and Europe. Unlike in the US and Europe, however, per capita spending by regional governments has been steadily climbing in recent years, from $376 in 2010 to $397 in 2011 and $423 in 2012.

On other measurements, the region leads the world. When defence spending is assessed as a proportion of the overall economy, for example, the Middle East is by far the biggest spender. Defence spending was equivalent to some 5.3 per cent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012, up slightly from the 5.2 per cent seen a year before. The next highest spending region was North America, where the figure was 3.8 per cent of GDP.

Regionally, the country that spends the most is Saudi Arabia, where the IISS estimates the defence budget for 2012 was $52.5bn. That is more than twice as much as the next biggest spender Iran, which allocated $23.9bn to defence last year. Others with significant budgets include Israel ($19.4bn in 2012), Iraq ($14.7bn) and Algeria ($9.4bn). There is no figure available for the UAE for last year, but in previous years it has also ranked among the region’s top spenders, with an outlay of $16.1bn in 2010 and $9.3bn in 2011.

Despite its huge spending, Saudi Arabia is in fact only the third-largest defence market in the region when measured in terms of spending per capita. At $1,979 per person, it trailed behind Israel, which spent $2,551 per capita last year, and Oman at $2,178. Such high figures mark the Middle East out from other parts of the world. Indeed, the only other countries that spend more than $1,000 per capita on defence are the US ($1,907 per capita in 2012), Singapore ($1,808), Norway ($1,455), Australia ($1,140) and the UK ($1,016).

As a proportion of GDP, Iraq spends the most, at 11.3 per cent of GDP in 2012, followed by Oman at 8.4 per cent and Saudi Arabia at 8 per cent. Around the rest of the world, the only other country, which spends a similar proportion of GDP on its military is war-ravaged Afghanistan, where the figure was 10.5 per cent last year.

The Mena countries with the smallest military budgets are Bahrain, which spent $1bn in 2012, and Lebanon and Tunisia, which both spent $1.2bn that year. On a per capita basis, the most frugal countries are Egypt and Yemen, which spent $66 and $67 per capita respectively in 2012. Gas-rich Qatar spends the least relative to the size of its overall economy, with an outlay of just 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2012.

Larger armies

What all this money buys is a region awash with soldiers. Across the Gulf, Levant and Maghreb, there are more than 2.5 million people in active service. Iran has the largest force, with some 523,000 personnel, including 350,000 in the army and 125,000 in the Revolutionary Guards. Iran also has one of the largest reserve forces in the region, with 350,000 additional troops.

In fact, around half the Mena region’s armed forces are in the Gulf. Between them, Iran, Iraq, the six GCC states and Yemen have 1.2 million active military personnel, including 773,000 in their armies, 48,000 in their navies and 73,000 in their air forces. A further 816,000 of the region’s forces are in North Africa and 515,000 in the Levant.

However, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, which has 233,500 active personnel, most of the GCC armies are relatively small. Indeed the combined forces of the other five GCC states amount to just 129,100 personnel.

Although high levels of spending means that they have modern equipment and are generally well trained, their small size also means that, in the event of any external threat, these countries would have to rely on support from their international allies, most obviously the US, but also the UK, France and others. The US continues to provide military aid to around half the countries in the region. Israel and Egypt are the two main recipients, with around $3bn a year going to Israel and $1.3bn to Egypt. Jordan is the next largest beneficiary, receiving some $300m a year, while Lebanon benefits to the tune of around $75m. The aid to these countries remained unchanged between 2011 and 2012. Of the other countries to receive support, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and Oman all saw their military aid flows from the US decline in 2012, from already modest levels.

Less fortunate

Other countries are even less fortunate. Those without the benefit of plentiful oil revenues or high levels of international military aid, such as Tunisia and Mauritania, struggle to ensure their forces are well trained or well equipped. Although Iran has abundant oil and gas reserves, it suffers from a lack of modern, sophisticated weaponry due to international sanctions. The country has a relatively large home-grown defence industry, but it is not able to produce the largest and most sophisticated weapons.

Iran does, however, have a more developed cyber warfare capability than any other country in the region other than Israel. Over the past two years, Tehran has established a Joint Chiefs of Staff Cyber Command, at least in part to defend itself against the cyber attacks on its nuclear facilities, which are believed to originate from Israel.

Iran and Israel are both keenly attuned to the threat of international action against them. For the armed forces of most countries around the region, however, their main role is to maintain internal security. That is certainly the case in Iraq and Yemen where ongoing instability threatens to derail the hopes of rebuilding their economies. For North African states such as Algeria, the challenges posed by the fresh threat from Islamist groups, as highlighted by the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in the south of the country in January, means that the ability to conduct joint operations with forces from allied countries will become a priority.

It is Syria were the stakes are highest. Damascus may have a relatively large army yet, according to John Chipman, director general of the IISS, its effective strength has been falling as the civil war there has continued. The regime can now only be certain of the loyalty of a relatively small proportion of its army, including the mainly Alawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard and the elite 3rd and 4th Divisions, he says. Between them, these groups number about 50,000 troops.

Syria aftermath

While the army’s capabilities and morale continue to suffer, the rebel groups are becoming more sophisticated, with greater support coming from outside the country. What this means if and when the Al-Assad regime falls is a concern. After all, rebel groups continue to be a source of tension in Libya, with Tripoli yet to disarm all the groups almost a year and a half after Muammar Gaddafi was killed.

“There is a considerable risk that a rapid end to the conflict [in Syria] is likely to be as destabilising as its prolongation,” says Chipman.

This is an inevitable risk in such a heavily armed region. When a war begins it is hard to control it, but when it ends it can be even more difficult to ensure that the weapons are retired, along with the fighters that once brandished them.