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Reign and Repercussion: Prospects for Arms Control in the Middle East

The Arab World’s Failed Attempts at Arms Control

Typically, while arms races have been and still are common around the world, the governments that procure armaments do not tend to use them on their own citizens. For Arab countries in the Middle East in particular, governments have used externally-procured armaments to intimidate and manipulate both domestic and regional opponents. Weapons of war have also become weapons of oppression.

Groups and individuals directing a strategies of arms procurement did so to legitimize their regimes, defend and expand their spheres of influence, and achieve political goals through violence or intimidation. The tangible results have, however, amounted to a rollback of these goals. Ineffectiveness, civilian victims, and international condemnation made hyper-armament counter productive to the goals of the authoritarian regimes. They achieved little by picking up arms.

The Middle East remains the largest importer of arms among developing countries. Regional actors partook in a total of $148.5 billion worth of arms deals during the ripe years of the Arab Awakening between 2011 and 2014. The reasons to acquire arms, however, have changed over time. Whereas tensions with Israel subtly remain, the Arab-Israeli conflict has long been muffled and replaced by an arms race of a different kind – one between the Gulf States and Iran, prompting the region’s own Cold War.

Following the end of the First Gulf War, Arab states and Israel were invited to the Madrid conference in 1991 to formally begin peace talks. The talks sought to open the floor for negotiations towards a lasting peace accord between the Arabs and Israelis. A lesser known aspect of these negotiations is that the sides also discussed water rights, economic development, and, equally important, arms control. A prime outcome of the talks, other than the Oslo Accords, was the creation of a regional working group called Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East (ACRS).

ACRS conducted meetings between 1992 and 1995, and seemed to provide an infrastructure for an optimistic and hopeful progress towards prospects of arms control and security in the region. However, everything was halted in 1995 due to disagreements between the states of Egypt and Israel over the creation of a WMD-Free zone in the region.

There has been no follow-up on any arms control initiative in the Middle East – the collapse of the ACRS is but one example. This has caused a lack of relevant data and information available on the region.

The Reign

“Hope dies in Yemen” reads a newspaper headline. Amal, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, is a Yemeni child who became a symbol of the ongoing Yemeni crisis. It started in 2015, when countries in the region, predominantly led by Saudi Arabia, launched airstrikes as part of a military intervention to prevent a Shi’iti stronghold from forming in the region.

The battle for regional influence driven by for-profit incentives has led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, with the largest outbreak of the cholera disease in recent history. History has shown that Arab countries disregard treaties aiming to cap armament capabilities in the region. Yet, it was not the death of children like Amal that prompted international action to control armament sales to Saudi Arabia, the prime perpetrator of the conflict. Rather, the calculated assassination of one manWashington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – led to a real outcry. Germany suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the European Union called for an arms embargo on the Kingdom. Yet other European countries have put their own interests ahead of those of the Yemeni people. France and the UK claimed that there is no link between arms trade and the killing of Khashoggi, while Spain abandoned an arms embargo due to commercial contractual obligations.

Moving Forward

The people of the Middle East have suffered the consequences of weapons and arms races as a result of both greedy, corrupt, and opportunistic regional leadership and faulty international alliances. This has made it impossible to disarm the region, leaving it defenseless against Israel, Western Powers, or Iran. Yet, jeopardizing the safety and livelihood of civilians who have known nothing but conflict is a reality that is not likely to drastically change.

There is some hope ahead, however, when examining the Middle East’s newest democracy: Tunisia. In June 2018, Tunisia assumed the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in the United Nations, and strongly affirmed the importance of international peace, security, and disarmament. In 2012, at a United Nations conference on Illicit Small Arms Trade, Tunisia expressed the need for international and regional collaboration in combating “supply and demand issues” of small arms. Tunisia also has the lowest firearm ownership percentage in the world. In 2004, prior of Tunisia’s democratization, a representative delegate in the first committee of the United Nations General Assembly stated that Tunisia “had always felt that the arms race was often carried out at the expense of basic needs of the civil populations and their development.” Since transitioning to democracy in 2012, Tunisia has slowly been passing more laws aligned with the values of liberty and human dignity – a model that shows the road toward arms control in the region is paved with shared democratic values absent of selfish tyrannical interests.






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