The Illicit Arms Trade In The Middle East Examined

The term “illicit arms trade” refers to the illegal selling and purchasing of ammunition that may take place between two parties. The main consumers to whom illicit arms deals appeal to are usually rogue individuals who are part of resurgence groups, etc. In essence, these trade networks target non-state actors and groups who do not associate with government bodies. The illegal trading of arms not only promotes violence against governing bodies, but it also intensifies the severity of an existing conflict. The latter is best represented in the Middle East, where the arms trade has contributed to the escalation of violence in the area.

Before entering into the discussion regarding the Middle East and its relation to illegal arms trading, it is important to understand the roots of the “business.” In a way, the globalization of the illicit arms trade can be attributed to the end of the Cold War; as the Soviet Union dissolved, surplus weaponry previously produced by the USSR was eagerly sold by the newly independent slavic states, the targeted buyers being insurgency groups, guerillas, and people who were looking to rise against any wave of control. Over the next couple years, a new thought process would emerge among global arms dealers: small conflicts call for small arms.

Coincidentally, as illicit arms trading globalized, the Middle East fell to instability. Generally speaking, the Middle East has consistently been ridden with internal problems, resurgency groups, and weak states. What made this particular bout of weakness more dangerous than ones in the past was the supplying of small arms to non-state actors who wished to cross the governing states. To arms dealers and brokers, the Middle East became a new, more lucrative market to sell ammunition to. The popularity of weapons and the positive sentimentality towards small arms in the Middle East prior to the arrival of the illicit arms trade made it easier for dealers to establish a stable business in the midst of the instability. A prime example of this idea can be seen in Yemen in the midst of their civil war.

Like much of the Middle East, Yemen has always had multiple active insurgency groups challenge the weakened central government. Starting in 2015, Yemen entered into a Civil War for control of the nation; the two main groups involved are the Houthi resurgence group, who claim to be the rightful governing body of Yemen, and the current governing body under President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. With the beginning of this civil war, Yemen became a large enough market in the Middle East to maintain a constant supply of arms to; Houthi insurgents became some of the largest buyers of ammunition from illegal arms traders in the Middle East. Another reason why Yemen is an accurate case study for the arms trade in the Middle East is because of “gun-culture” in Yemen. Although somewhat-urbanized parts of Yemen (cities like San’a) do not promote public display and holding of ammunition, the parts of Yemen which hold tribal associations believe possession of ammunition to be a sign of power, honor, and high stature. This culture-specific belief plays a key role in explaining the popularity of illicit arms deals among tribes and tribe-affiliated groups like the Houthis in Yemen.

Overall, the illicit arms trade of the Middle East has been more than successful since its inception, and continues to bring in large amounts of money from the black market. The arms trade in the Middle East can be seen as being mutually beneficial between the seller and the buyer; both parties receive what they wish for, cash, or ammunition. However, whatever benefits that these two main actors experience comes at the expense of an important, yet non-participating actor: the civilians of the region.

In recent times, international organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International have called attention to the human rights violations against the civilian population of the Middle East as a result of the arms trade. Most organizations believe that a negative externality produced by the arms trade is its indirect effect on the civilian population. In the Middle East, it is a common phenomenon to witness cruelty against innocent parties as a result of background conflicts. Going back to the Yemeni Civil War, many civilians have faced major problems like displacement, famine, and wrongful deaths as a result of the escalation of the conflict. Utilizing this logic, the multiple human rights violations and decrease in standard of living in conflicted countries can be attributed to the illicit arms trade in the Middle East. Although indirect, the illegal trading of weapons in the area affects a much larger population than those who are involved in the transaction.

By: Sanjana Sharma