As the double whammy of the pandemic and the collapse in oil prices slams Middle Eastern economies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank are already providing several Arab governments with billions of dollars in emergency financing and anticipate requests from others. Many Arab states are especially vulnerable to such external shocks because of long-standing economic mismanagement, often exacerbated by exorbitant military spending.

But as a new report on global military expenditures shows, it is difficult if not impossible to discern exactly how much many Arab countries spend on their militaries. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) laments that many Arab governments lack any semblance of transparency in their military budgets, making it impossible to know or even estimate the region’s defense expenditures. Among other problems, this opacity makes it difficult for international financial institutions (IFIs) to factor Arab defense budgets into the requirements for adjusting public spending that normally accompany their support.

According to SIPRI’s data, only four Arab countries—Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Tunisia—have made all of their military spending data public over the past five years. While it is expected that war-ravaged countries such as Yemen or Libya would have trouble producing a full accounting, other states have the capacity but simply choose not to release the information.

For instance, SIPRI was unable to include any data for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq provided so little information that SIPRI remains “highly uncertain” of their reported figures. Saudi Arabia (which ranked fifth in the world in estimated military expenditures for 2019), Bahrain, Lebanon, and Oman also lack sufficient transparency in their public data, forcing SIPRI to estimate their annual military spending.

While we may not know exactly how much Arab regimes spend on their militaries, we do know that they are among the world’s leading importers of arms—an industry rife with corruption—and the largest recipients of military aid. As SIPRI has documented, six of the top 10 importers of major arms were Arab countries, totaling nearly one-third of all global imports ($146 billion) between 2015 and 2019. In 2017—the last year for which full data are available—four of the top 10 purchasers of U.S. arms were Arab countries, and nearly one-third of all U.S. weapons sales ($36.6 billion), along with roughly $5 billion in U.S. security aid, went to Arab regimes.

The lack of transparency in most Arab governments’ expenditure of public funds undoubtedly contributes to the very low levels of trust in government captured in regional public opinion surveys. When IFIs provide assistance, even emergency aid, to Arab governments, they should condition the funds on transparent budgets, including a full accounting of military expenditures. For its part, the U.S. government should make new arms sales—including the deals totaling nearly $3 billion announced just last week for Egypt and UAE—and security aid conditional on budget transparency. Such measures would improve Arab governance and fiscal management, making these states less vulnerable to future economic (and political) crises.


Seth Binder is POMED’s Advocacy Officer. He is on Twitter @seth_binder. His most recent publication, U.S. Security Assistance to Egypt: Examining the Return on Investment (May 2020), is available here.


Photo: Saudi Arabia Ministry of Defense