The Future of Arms Control in the Middle East

By Bilal Y. Saab – Political space is opening up in the Arab world. While it is particularly difficult to speak with any degree of confidence on the ultimate trajectory of the Arab uprisings (with all their local variants), the process of democratization that is sweeping the region is likely to have a significant impact on how Arab societies and their soon-to-be representative governments make and conduct foreign and defense policy in the future. One key area of concern is the subject of regional arms control and disarmament.

Standing in the way of arms control and regional security in the Middle East are old conditions — territorial disputes, arms races, security dilemmas, historical rivalries, ideological radicalism, deep-seated fears of the other, and sectarian, religious, and ethnic animosities — that are well known and have been analyzed in some detail else-where. Because of the depth and scope of the political and security problems facing the Middle East, it is tempting to give up hope on the region and accept that no arms control initiative could ever be seriously entertained and practiced in that part of the world. Even those very few idealists who have retained their optimism rarely miss an opportunity to add one important caveat: it will take a very long time before arms control is dealt with in a serious fashion in the Middle East, a region that is deeply troubled, hopelessly divided, and heavily militarized.

Nobody doubts that it will take years, if not generations, for arms control to take root in the Middle East. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict showing no sign of resolution anytime soon, increasing regional uncertainties caused by the political transitions, a raging civil conflict in Syria that not only threatens the stability of neighboring countries but also risks redrawing the regional security map, and talk of possible military action by Israel or the United States against Iran to thwart its nuclear program, the prospect of countries in that part of the world cooperating with each other seems unthinkable at present. Thus the unprecedented move of placing real, verifiable, and mutual limitations on these countries’ sovereignty, state secrets, and defense armaments for the collective goal of reducing regional insecurity seems even more far-fetched.

Nobody doubts that the Middle East will experience growing pains should it restart arms control and regional security talks, a diplomatic process that has been interrupted since the 1995 collapse of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) multilateral negotiations. Postponed indefinitely due to Israeli concerns about its timing and agenda, the December 2012 conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East is an example of one missed opportunity to restart the process. Any casual reading of the arms control experience between the Soviet Union (later Russia) and the United States, as well as that among European nations after the end of the Cold War, will amply show that arms control — already a counterintuitive concept and exercise even to the most liberal and open-minded — is a tough and complex business.

Over the years, the ills of the Middle East and their effects on arms control have been properly diagnosed. However, more precise analysis of the likely causes of these issues and how they specifically impact regional security and arms control is still needed. It is evident that the region suffers from profound security problems and acute democratic deficits that will discourage even the most passionate regional security and arms control advocate. But these are outcomes, not causes of these conditions. A far more useful analytical approach to studying regional security and arms control would pay much closer attention to individual actors and the domestic contexts of their foreign and defense policies. Such an approach for the Middle East is long overdue.

Prior to the Arab uprisings, the lack of scrutiny on the domestic contexts of Arab foreign and defense policies was justified by pointing to the fact that such policies were the exclusive domain of a select few (i.e., monarchs, autocrats, generals, and warlords) and their close advisors. Under these political circumstances, inputs and pressures from actors outside that small decision-making circle on the foreign policy process were arguably minimal. With the exception of political psychologists, very few foreign policy analysts specializing in the Middle East saw much analytical value in studying the domestic context of Arab foreign policies.4 As a result, the “Arab foreign policy black box” was largely kept closed. Now, the current dramatic changes spreading throughout the Middle East will force analysts to finally open it.

While there are cultural, societal, political, and historical similarities among the countries of the Middle East, and while democratic transitions tend to unleash all too familiar forces in politics and society, it would be wrong to treat foreign policy and decision-making processes in the region as homogeneous. Indeed, because each country undergoing transition or tumult is unique and at a different stage in its history with regard to political maturity, social cohesion, and economic development, the effects of change throughout the region and their implications for arms control will not be uniform.

A case in point is, for example, the divergent paths that Egypt and Syria have taken since 2011. Even though the process of change was violent and chaotic in its first few months in Egypt, Cairo managed to transition from authoritarianism to representative government following the ouster of President Husni Mubarak and the holding of free national elections. Syria, on the other hand, had a much less fortunate trajectory, and because of President Bashar al-Asad’s refusal to address the legitimate demands of the populace, the initially peaceful uprising gradually morphed into a civil war that is threatening to rip the country apart and destabilize neighboring countries. Libya is somewhere in between, escaping the civil conflict and disintegration that Syria is experiencing, but at the same time undergoing acute political instability and militia rule given the massive void left by the previous regime of Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi. Tunisia’s transition was the most peaceful given the relatively quick collapse of the previous government of President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali and the vital pacifying role played by its civil society, but this hardly suggests that the process of democratic change will be smooth or problem-free, given the growing role of Salafi politics and resurfacing of Islamist militancy in the country and more broadly in northern Africa.

Yet despite all these variances and their implications for the future of arms control and regional security, countries in the region will experience similar challenges as they go through the difficult and much-interrupted process of state-, and in some cases, nation- building. All countries in the Middle East will face common problems and difficulties as they try to elect wise and accountable leaders, build institutional capacity, promote bureaucratic effectiveness and efficiency, and pursue economic development. Progress on these areas will affect, in dissimilar ways depending on the local context, the ability of Middle Eastern countries to successfully engage any potential arms control agenda, or more specifically, the concept and goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.


This is the introduction of an article that appeared in full in the Middle East Journal, Volume 67, Issue 3 (Summer 2013), pp. 426-436. The article is available for subscribers to the MEJ and can also be accessed through Project Muse and other online academic databases.