The Middle East as the world’s illicit arms depot

by | Mar 27, 2023 | English

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By Sarah Fares, Global Initiative against transnational organized crime,

Western Asia is home to the fastest-growing arms market in the world, a concerning share of which is falling into the hands of organized crime groups, driven by conflict as well as fuelling it. Meanwhile, ongoing regional instability and governments’ failure to address people’s security needs are driving civilians to the illicit arms market for self-protection.

The results of the 2021 Global Organized Crime Index show that Western Asia is the region with the world’s most pervasive arms market, with an average score of 7.25 out of 10, compared to the global average of 4.92. Longstanding conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, among others, have spurred an influx of small arms and heavy weaponry to these countries while neighbouring states become increasingly weaponized. In Jordan, for example, civilian gun ownership has become commonplace and arms are widely sold in bazaars for anyone who can afford them. Over 90 per cent of the weapons used in violent crimes in the country are found to have been purchased illegally.

Western Asia’s appetite for arms is both a cause and effect of conflicts that continue to rage on. The countries with the highest arms trafficking scores under the Index are all involved in conflict in one way or another – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Turkey scored 9 out of 10 on this indicator, only outranked by Libya (9.5), which serves as a primary source country for arms flowing into the region. Other factors that have driven demand include the long-standing tensions between Israel and Arab states, the Kurdish quest for independence, and the still-unfolding consequences of political Islamism in Iraq, Syria and neighbouring states.

The influx of legal and illicit arms into the region is compounded by the vested interests of a number of actors. Unwaning rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the former backed by the US and the latter by Russia – have led to the strategic arming of proxy groups across the region, including HezbollahHamas and al-Qaeda affiliates. The Iranian government has long been accused of secretly shipping weapons to Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting for control of the country. Saudi Arabia, in turn, receives support from the US and the UK in equipping the Yemeni government to crack down on the rebels and curb instability along their shared border. Western arms sales to the region are often connected with deadly attacks on civilians and other humanitarian crises, including the inadvertent weaponization of the Islamic State.

Alongside direct supplies from foreign governments, weapons also derive from past conflicts in the region and beyond. Leftover arsenals from the 1980s Iran–Iraq war are still circulating in both countries today, while Soviet-era weapons used in the 1990s Yugoslav wars have fallen into rebel hands amid Syria’s decade-long civil war. The region’s main source of recycled weapons, however, is Libya, where the chaos following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 enabled supplies to move eastwards into conflict zones. In recent years, for example, it has been uncovered that Hamas has exploited Libya’s weak oversight mechanisms and smuggled missiles and other weaponry into Gaza.

Whether part of a geopolitical strategy or through looting and stockpile diversion, criminal groups in Western Asia have little difficulty acquiring weapons. The region is awash with open-air marketplaces where arms are sold either publicly or under the counter, often alongside illicit cigarettes, wildlife and other contraband. Such bazaars tend to operate in sparsely populated regional provinces, where law enforcement capacity is limited. In addition, the emergence of digital platforms has spawned new marketing opportunities for the arms trade. Public forums serve as hotspots where supply and demand markets meet, with some unmoderated and publicly accessible Facebook gun enthusiast groups reportedly having thousands of members.

In Western Asia, the large presence of actors of conflict – legitimate or illegitimate, depending on one’s perspective – makes the already opaque picture of the arms market even murkier. Access to weapons has enabled such groups to seize territorial or political control to the extent it is no longer clear which actors may be considered legitimate. For example, following Lebanon’s civil war, Beirut granted Hezbollah the right to keep its weapons to continue to fight Israeli forces. While Israel withdrew from the country in 2000, the group is still in possession of such weapons today. Now believed to be the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, Hezbollah’s widespread military and political control enables it to wield significant influence over the country’s government.

The region’s pervasive arms trafficking market is also driving other forms of organized crime. Displacement caused by ongoing instability has become a prime business opportunity for human trafficking and smuggling networks, and weapon-enabled violence empowers armed groups to consolidate control in volatile areas. Racketeering, extortion, illegal taxation, assassinations and turf wars are commonplace in the region. For example, in eastern Syria, Islamic State militias are thought to have secured their funding through illegal taxation and extortion practices in areas formerly under their control.

Besides criminal groups, civilians in Western Asia are becoming increasingly weaponized. In many countries in the region, the small-arms trafficking market is witnessing a boom amid economic and financial collapse, high rates of theft, and the failure of the state to prevent crime and political violence. Civilians purchase guns and other small arms to protect themselves and their families from perceived threats. In Iraq and Lebanon, for example, where the authorities have failed to reduce robbery and clan disputes over the past years, so-called ‘house guns’ are becoming increasingly popular. According to the Small Arms Survey, nearly 20 per cent of Iraq’s population owned a gun in 2021; in Lebanon the figure is 32 per cent. Not only is the weaponization of civil society a bleak indicator of the growing mistrust towards the government, it also increases opportunities for arms to (re-)enter the black market, particularly when further social unrest inevitably erupts.

The region did not become the world’s illicit arms depot overnight. The state-driven flooding of arms, lack of oversight mechanisms, and limited law enforcement capabilities and international cooperation are all factors that have contributed to the region’s most destabilizing actors exploiting the proliferation of arms. This has perpetuated the vicious cycle of conflict that has plagued the region for decades. As the world’s eyes are now set on Ukraine, where weapons have been flowing into the country in bulk, lessons from the Middle East may serve as a cautionary reminder of what is at stake when a proliferating arms market is left unchecked.

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