It is always heartening to see some Western-based global institutions speak the truth about aspects of our turbulent and sometimes derelict conditions in Arab countries. This is the case with a report released in London Tuesday by Transparency International (TI), that said the “Islamic State” (ISIS) would only be defeated if the corrupt conditions that help it to thrive are addressed. This call significantly says responsibility for the conditions that created ISIS and others like it is shared among Arab and other Middle Eastern and Western countries, including the United States and United Kingdom.
Both aspects of this are noteworthy, especially as various Middle Eastern and foreign armies are attacking ISIS’ Raqqa and Mosul strongholds. The two bookends of the ISIS phenomenon and many others like it are that corruption is a major driver of terrorism, especially in the Middle East, and that Western governments are complicit in this and need to revise their policies, as do Arab states themselves.
The deeper point is TI’s call for Western and other foreign governments to stop using their taxpayers’ money to support authoritarian regimes that thrive on corruption. Katherine Dixon, director of Transparency International Defence and Security and co-author of the report, said, “This is not just about closing off the corrupt channels that enable the day-to-day operations of groups like ISIS, but rethinking relationships with the Mubaraks [in Egypt], Qaddafis [in Libya] and Malakis [in Iraq] of the future.”
This call coincides with new data compiled by the UK group Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), quoted in the Guardian newspaper on February 12, showing unusual British exuberance in selling arms to Arab states, including those involved in the catastrophic war in Yemen. The story notes: “In the years leading up to the Arab spring, the UK sold those countries £41.3m of small arms, £7m of ammunition and £34.3m of armored vehicles. In the five years following the events of 2011, these figures, compiled by CAAT, had risen sharply to an annual average of £58.9m, £14m and £59.6m respectively. In some cases sales skyrocketed. UK exports of small arms, ammunition and armored vehicles to the United Arab Emirates jumped from £18.3m to £93.2m, to Qatar from £2.3m to £33.4m, and to Egypt from £2.5m to £34.7m (….) The UK has continued to arm the Saudi regime, licensing about £3.3bn of weapons to the kingdom since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015.”
Andrew Smith of CAAT echoed TI’s call for Western states to reconsider how their policies bolster non-democratic Arab states: “The 2011 uprisings should have caused countries like the UK to re-evaluate how they do business with the Middle East and North Africa, but they did no such thing. The arms sales have increased, even where the repression is getting worse.” The TI report adds a new element to this argument, which is that ISIS and other groups like it will only be defeated if the underlying drivers of dysfunction, disparities, and indignity across many parts of the Arab world are tackled head on—meaning that both Arab and foreign governments must revise their policies.
The TI report, entitled “The Big Spin,” says that ISIS exploited the widespread Arab popular resentment of corruption to radicalize and recruit people, offering the Islamic State as the antidote, even though it also practiced dishonest activities.
A related problem, TI acknowledged, is that foreign powers spend too much time focusing on radical religious ideologies, but completely ignore the material circumstances in which ISIS and other such groups thrive. So defeating ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul while corruption, government incompetence, and citizen despair continue to grow will only guarantee the birth of new groups even more dangerous than ISIS, Al-Qaeda and others like them.
The “material circumstances” that TI refers to have led to very difficult living conditions for several hundred million Arabs in the past few decades; this has been due to the ravages from the convergence of corrupt, often inept, elites that mismanage government services, a total lack of political rights for citizens, and no credible accountability of power—while high population growth continues apace, environmental conditions deteriorate widely, and foreign armies attack and colonize Arab lands at will. This entire grim picture has been heavily supported by Western governments or quietly accepted as an unfortunate dimension of the Orient—but never mind, they say in London, Washington and Paris, if those Arabs spend tens of billions of dollars to buy our weapons that are mostly used to further destabilize other Arab countries and spur refugee flows now measured in the millions.
The outcome is what we have seen across many Arab lands since the early 1990s, as disgruntled citizens turn desperate, and in turn destabilize their own and neighboring lands. TI concludes appropriately: “Corruption is a real security threat, more than just a means for elites to line their pockets. In the end corrupt governments by fueling public anger and undermining institutions, are the architects of their own security crises.”
Well said, old chaps.
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.