The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a webinar discussion on June 17, 2020 about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the global arms industry. Panelists focused on importing countries in the Middle East and their deals made with Western arms exporters. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: David Wearing, teaching fellow at Royal Holloway University; Dennis Horak, former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Diana Ohlbaum, legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the Arms and Military Expenditure Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Noha Aboueldahab, fellow at the BDC, moderated the event.
Dennis Horak began the discussion and spoke about Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He noted that Canada has been selling arms to the Gulf state for decades, however, most civilians were unaware. It only became a political issue after the country signed a multibillion-dollar deal to sell the kingdom military vehicles. Ultimately, Horak contended that Canada exports arms to Saudi Arabia for commercial purposes and does not view the trade as strategic. By contrast, Saudi Arabia has sought to use arms purchases to leverage a broader relationship. However, political engagement did not reach the kingdom’s desired level. Moreover, Horak stated that Canada did not lift the moratorium on the deal mentioned above because of COVID-19’s economic impact. Rather, the Western country was hesitant to abandon a valid contract, thus, jeopardizing its global reputation. In addition, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to secure the deal to create jobs, and Horak noted that this was a significant factor. In the future, the former ambassador hopes to see Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia return to normal so the Western nation can wield soft power to influence the Gulf state.
Diana Ohlbaum continued the discussion, explaining the difficulty on the part of U.S. Congress to halt arms sales to oppressive governments. She stated that the challenge lies in problematic assumptions surrounding U.S. militarism. One assumption is that the safety of Americans depends on sustained military operations abroad and that the killing of innocent civilians is an inevitable consequence. Another assumption, Ohlbaum stated, is that the arms trade plays an imperative role in the U.S. economy. However, she refuted this claim and noted that a one billion-dollar investment in healthcare creates 14,300 jobs, while the same investment in the military sector creates less than half this amount. In moving forward, Ohlbaum noted that Congress could re-write laws to prohibit arms sales without their explicit approval. However, such a move would require the active support of the American public, which has not prioritized foreign policy in the past. Nonetheless, Ohlbaum noted that civilians are beginning to make the connection “between systemic racism at home and the quest for U.S. global military domination.” Therefore, foreign policy issues like arms sales will likely be topics that constituents soon raise with their members of Congress.
Following Ohlbaum’s remarks, David Wearing discussed the United Kingdom (U.K.)’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Firstly, he argued that the U.K.-Saudi arms trade reflects a strategic partnership. The kingdom purchases over 50 percent of the U.K.’s arms exports and helps to finance the Western country’s current account deficit. Moreover, Wearing noted that due to the fall in oil demand, Saudi Arabia will likely reduce its military spending even once the commodity’s price begins to recover. Despite this, the Gulf state has reassured the U.K. that it will still purchase arms even with less oil revenue to spend. However, there is growing tension within Saudi Arabia where domestic austerity measures contrast with lavish investments and arms purchases abroad. Lastly, Wearing commented on a U.K. court order passed last year that prohibited the government from awarding new arms export licenses to the Gulf state. He concluded that this move was too little too late. At that point, Saudi Arabia had already amassed many licenses that it continues to trade with today. Moreover, the court case did not impact the U.K.’s practical support to the kingdom in carrying out its offensive on Yemen, which includes the provision of personnel and expertise.
Pieter Wezeman concluded the discussion by analyzing the long-term impact of the collapse of oil markets and the pandemic’s economic fallout on military spending in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Wezeman noted that Arab states are large arms purchasers. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is the largest arms importer in the world, and seven of the countries with the highest military burden (share of military spending within the gross domestic product) are in the MENA region as well. The researcher noted that it is difficult to predict whether this present rate of spending will be sustainable. However, he argued that we can make predictions based on historical trends. For example, Saudi Arabia significantly decreased its military spending when oil prices dropped in 2015. Therefore, Wezeman noted, we might see a similar cut during the pandemic. On the other hand, MENA states might decide to sustain their level of military spending if threat perceptions increase. Indeed, over recent years countries in the Arab world have sought out arms purchases not only to form partnerships but also to increase their engagement in regional conflicts. Finally, Wezeman stated that many countries are beginning to practice cheap warfare, which entails supplying proxy forces with low-cost equipment. Therefore, cuts to military spending may not translate to reductions in militarism.
In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists focused on non-military solutions to conflicts in the MENA region, the future of Canadian-Saudi arms trade, and promoting accountability within the industry. Wezeman cited Germany and Sweden as European examples where civil society has pushed for more responsible trading and the exploration of non-military solutions to hostilities in the Arab world. He noted that COVID-19 will likely not harm the global arms industry. Rather, the pandemic’s economic fallout will encourage arms dealers to maintain close relationships with the political elite of the MENA region to preserve sales. Moreover, Horak stated that at this stage, Canada is left little choice but to continue its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, at least in terms of the current contract. In the future, the former ambassador contended that the Western country must pay close attention when making sales to ensure importers use weapons in the ways they claim. Finally, Ohlbaum noted that for the United States, Congress must act to ensure accountability within the country’s arms trade. The legislative body should gather information on whether a sale will aid in violating human rights and perpetuating corruption before signing any deals.
Teaching Fellow in International Relations - Royal Holloway University
Former Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Legislative Director for Foreign Policy - Friends Committee on National Legislation
Senior Researcher with the Arms and Military Expenditure Programme - The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
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