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Arms Exporters React to Middle East Unrest

Arms Control NOW

By Xiaodon Liang

Source: ABC News

Arms suppliers have scrambled to readjust their export policies in the face of political unrest against client governments in the Middle East and North Africa. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, the three largest exporters of arms within the European Union (EU), in addition to the United States, have been criticized for their sales of not only tools of armed conflict (tanks and combat aircraft) to governments hovering on the brink of instability but also for sales of tools of domestic repression: armored vehicles, small arms, tear gas, and riot equipment.

Early responses varied as arms exporting states reassessed their sales to the Egyptian government during the weeks of protest beginning in late January. France and Germany both suspended commercial licenses for controlled exports including tear gas and small arms while the United Kingdom ruled out a total ban, adopting a case by case approach instead. The United States, meanwhile, kept silent on its plans for future sales to its long-time ally.

After the departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, attention shifted to the violent repression in Libya and Bahrain. The United Kingdom acted first on February 17 when a junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister announced a review of all arms exports licenses to Bahrain. In the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary William Hague was questioned by members of the opposition regarding the United Kingdom's longstanding strategic relationship with the island nation. The French newspaper Le Monde reported on its website the following day that France would suspend all licenses for exports to both Bahrain and Libya. On February 23, a spokesperson from the office of Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy, confirmed that a European Union-wide halt on trade with and licensing of controlled goods for sale to Libya was in effect.

How large is the actual arms trade to these countries? Here are some illustrative figures.


The French government delivered €234 million ($322 million, all conversions in 2011 dollars) worth of arms to Egypt in the five year period from 2005 to 2009 according to annual reports published by the ministry of defense (Link goes to 2009 edition). These exports fell into EU Common Military list categories for bombs, rockets, missiles and explosives, ground vehicles, military electronics, and aircraft. The announcement of the suspension of arms licenses came in the midst of a scandal involving the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, who accepted plane trips from an associate of recently deposed Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, has also admitted to holidaying at the expense of Mubarak last Christmas.

Further embarrassment was incurred when the web edition of Le Point published a reminder that Bahraini police had been trained by their French counterparts as part of a 2007 agreement signed by Alliot-Marie, then Minister of the Interior. From 2005 to 2009, France delivered €8.8 million ($12.1 million) worth of arms to the government of Bahrain and approved licenses for €43.4 million ($59.7 million). According to EU reports, items approved for sale included small arms, ground vehicles, and possibly chemical, biological, radioactive, or riot control materials. In the same period, €72.7 million ($100 million) of arms transfers were made to Libya and licenses worth €210 million ($289 million) were approved. Ammunition, aircraft, and ground vehicles were all cleared for sale to the government of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya has also expressed interest in purchasing Dassault Rafale combat aircraft from France, although no deal has been signed as of yet.


German shipments of arms to Egypt have been substantially smaller, totaling just under €2.1 million ($2.9 million) over the same five year period. However, it has approved commercial licenses worth more than €151 million ($208 million) for communications equipment, parts for tanks and armored vehicles, small arms, and training weapons. (Figures and breakdown are available in government publications such as this example for 2009.) €18.1 million ($24.9 million) in military exports were approved for sale to Bahrain, including various small arms in 2009 such as shotguns, sniper rifles, and machine guns. Licenses worth a total of €124 million ($170 million) were granted for transfers to Libya, covering a helicopter and parts, battlefield radar, and military communications equipment.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has also shipped relatively fewer items to Egypt, having issued licenses for military and dual-use goods worth only £59.3 million ($96.3 million) between 2005 and 2009 and made, at minimum, confirmed shipments of £11.5 million ($18.7 million) in 2007 and £8.4 million ($13.6 million) in 2006. The licenses were issued for the sale of training equipment and software, small arms and light weapons and their components, communications equipment, body armor, and riot shields. Similar licenses were awarded for the sale of £14.1 million ($22.9 million) of items to Bahrain. It is Libya that has been the most voracious customer for British arms, requesting £88.2 million ($143 million) worth of arms and dual-use technologies in the five year period, plus another £212 million ($345 million) in the first three quarters of 2010. Approved licenses have covered small arms, tear gas, crowd control ammunition, and breaching projectiles, as well as electronics, communications equipment, and military software.


As the Libyan protests turned deadly and allegations of crimes against humanity swirled in Tripoli, Libya's connections with Italy also came under keen scrutiny. Despite delivering €66.6 million ($90.7 million) of arms to Egypt from 2005 to 2009 and approving licenses worth €140 million ($192 million), the government of embattled President Silvio Berlusconi was able to fly under the radar of media attention until very recently. The personal relationship between Gaddafi and Berlusconi certainly mirrored a firm military relationship between the two states that resulted in €74.6 million ($103 million) of arms deliveries from Rome to Libya in a five year period while €277 million ($380 million) worth of licenses were approved. These figures, obtained from patchy annual EU reports on conventional arms sales, also show €7.6 million ($10.4 million) of arms deliveries to Bahrain.

United States

All of these transfers are dwarfed by the $5.6 billion dollars in Foreign Military Sales (FMS) the United States Defense Department delivered from 2005 to 2009 to Egypt. In addition to this amount, Mubarak's government was granted licenses for direct commercial sales of arms worth at least $365 million through the State Department. ABC news revealed that U.S.-manufactured tear gas canisters were fired at protesters by riot police. Based on released documents covering the period up to 2008, the US State department last approved licenses for the sale to Egypt of 17,000 units of riot control chemicals, a popular euphemism for tear gas, in 2006. Bahrain was also the recipient of $504 million in FMS and was granted licenses worth $172.1 million through the State department, including $966,100 worth of riot control chemicals.

Libya remains under a U.S. military trade embargo which was last updated in February 2007. (See update, March 4, 2011.)


It is worth noting that states are barred from using riot control agents in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into force in 1997. The convention provides no ban on the use of tear gas for the purpose of domestic policing and the substance appears to be outside the human rights regime, as this European Court of Human Rights judgment explains.

Whether these reversals in sales policy are a sign of a permanent readjustment remains unclear. As far as we know, none of the three European countries discussed above have put forth plans regarding future sales to Egypt since Mubarak stepped down on February 11. The recently revealed U.S. Federal budget for fiscal year 2012 includes the usual $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt, but as the Wall Street Journal has reported, these figures are now under renewed scrutiny. Although the response to repression in Bahrain and Libya has been timely in comparison with the long wait before licenses for goods to be transferred to Egypt were revoked, there is no indication that this signals a meaningful about-face. Indeed, on February 22, UK Prime Minister David Cameron made comments in Kuwait defending the principles behind arms sales and insisted that the United Kingdom had in place the strictest export controls in the world, directly after a showpiece stop-over in Egypt.

As normalcy in Middle East political life remains a distant prospect, monitoring of the resumption of arms transfers is likely to be a long-term project.