What is military expenditure? According to the NATO standards, it is “the amount of disbursement by the national government to satisfy the needs of the Armed Forces”. However, since this is just an overall definition, the defence budget can include other items of expenditure that usually go under the name of “other force” and are represented by paramilitary forces, interior-ministry soldiers, and military forces who usually serve the civil society, such as Gendarmerie in France or Carabinieri in Italy.
The extent to which these additional forces can be regarded as part of the Defence budget depends on the fact that they have been trained with military procedures, that their equipment can be classified as military, and that they can be promptly deployed in war contexts. The reason why these premises are important lies in the fact that it is not always easy to investigate the Defence expenditure of states and understand how many resources are directed to military purposes and how many serve other-than-military or complementary ones.
In liberal Western countries, this task is not particularly tricky as all the information is made public and the explanation is quite satisfying, although this varies across countries and cannot be taken for granted. The same cannot be said for the Middle Eastern and North African countries. The first, intuitive, reason lies in the fact that the region is composed of illiberal countries, namely states which are not democracies and where the access to information, particularly in sensitive realms, is severely restricted. A distinction between the expenditure for defence and security purposes is thus needed.
Some studies have proven that in 2020 some countries in the region have changed their defence mix, decoupling the items relating to non-military purposes from those strictly connected with the security of the state. Some examples can be cited. Bahrain detached the NSA (National Security Agency) from the defence budget; Iran made the same with the NAJA (the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran) from the national military calculation since it is part of the Ministry of Interior and includes anti-narcotics, traffic, immigration, etc; Oman’s defence budget normally only mentions ‘Defence and Security’, but, last year for the first time, the expenditure for the Royal Oman Police was removed from the military budget. Most notably, Saudi Arabia, whose annual allocation for military and security forces is the highest in the region ($75.7 bn), separated the item ‘Security and Regional Administration’ from the main defence outflow. After this adjustment, the total decreased to $48.5 bn, which is anyway the highest in the region.
The overall spending for military purposes in the region accounts for 5.4% of the overall GDP and, since the total of these expenditure is well beyond the domestic fiscal revenue, it’s often financed by borrowing money. Indeed, in 2018 the region’s debt-to-GDP ratio was about 40% of the GDP.
However, despite the relatively high share of spending for defence capabilities, the countries composing the MENA region do not stand out for their relevance within international coalitions, neither in terms of military force nor in terms of contribution. In this respect, it is relevant that none of the countries of the region figure amongst the top 10 contributors of the UN peacekeeping operations. While, on the one side, this can be explained by the precarious financial conditions of some of those states, on the other one, not even the richest countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, have participated.
In conclusion, one could posit that, far from undertaking their responsibilities as members of the international community, up to now the members of the MENA region have always been a recipient, rather than a contributor of the international military and stabilisation operations.
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