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Arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance in the Middle East and North Africa: Identifying needs and bridging gaps

Arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance in the Middle East and North Africa: Identifying needs and bridging gaps
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Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) face a range of arms diversion-related challenges. Many of them are also significantly strengthening their military capabilities, either through arms imports from foreign suppliers or through increased domestic production of weapons. In addition, some countries in the region have ambitions of becoming producers and suppliers of arms for export. This is particularly problematic in the context of generally low levels of transparency in the region with regard to armaments. In combination, these factors mean that effective arms transfer and small arms and light weapons (SALW) controls are essential to help to ensure that the region, which is already plagued by conflicts and tensions, does not become even more unstable.

International cooperation and assistance in the field of arms transfer and SALW controls could help MENA countries to overcome arms diversion-related challenges, address weaknesses in their national arms control systems and contribute to stabilizing areas that have been affected by armed conflicts. It could also help to raise awareness around the objectives and obligations of relevant international instruments—including the 2001 United Nations Programme of Action on SALW (UNPOA) and the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)—and to promote regional cooperation and transparency. Providing an overview of the assistance that MENA countries have received in the field of arms transfer and SALW controls, the specific areas that this has addressed, and the main actors involved could support these efforts by flagging current activities to avoid duplications, identifying potential gaps for future activities, and creating opportunities to build synergies among interested stakeholders.

Using information from SIPRI’s database of ATT-relevant cooperation and assistance activities, this Topical Backgrounder provides an updated picture of assistance activities involving countries in the region. It builds on research that SIPRI conducted in 2018 and a preliminary analysis of arms transfer and SALW control-related challenges and needs in MENA that was published in November 2022. Further, it assesses to what extent assistance delivered in the region has been in line with the needs and requests of MENA countries and provides recommendations on the priorities that should be the focus of future assistance efforts.

Instruments for requesting assistance

Several instruments are available to states to request assistance in the field of arms transfer and SALW controls. Among them is the reporting instrument connected to the UNPOA, a politically binding agreement adopted in 2001 to counter the illicit trade in SALW. While reporting on how they implement the UNPOA, states can indicate assistance needs in the fields of SALW manufacturing, transfer, brokering, stockpile management, destruction, seizure, record-keeping and tracing. A total of 12 MENA countries have submitted at least one report to the UNPOA in the past decade. Half of them used it to request assistance, namely Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Of these, three states—Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—started to request assistance during the past four years, as they began to report more consistently to the UNPOA. The assistance requests from MENA countries cover a wide range of fields, including legislative assistance, but only Morocco has specified exactly what support it needs (e.g. marking, record-keeping and storage).

States parties to the ATT are requested to provide details about their national transfer control systems in their initial reports. These reports can be used by reporting states to highlight possible gaps or to identify areas where assistance is needed. In addition, to facilitate the matching of assistance needs with resources, the ATT Secretariat is developing a database alongside an online tool for states to request assistance. Only two MENA countries—Lebanon and Palestine—are states parties to the ATT, but, at the time of writing, Lebanon has not yet submitted its initial report and Palestine’s is not publicly available. This means that the instrument is not currently particularly useful for identifying assistance needs in MENA countries. 

The Firearms Protocol, adopted in 2001 to supplement the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and primarily to counter the illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms, includes the provision of training and technical assistance to other parties in its objectives. To facilitate this, states can use a self-assessment questionnaire to submit requests for assistance. Only 10 MENA countries have ratified the Firearms Protocol, of which at least 5 have submitted a completed questionnaire in the past. As part of the review mechanism of UNTOC, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has created a technical assistance needs survey for states parties to complete, to gain a better understanding of their requirements. States parties can make submissions in a dedicated restricted area of UNODC’s website.

As part of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which focuses on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, states submit national reports that include a section on assistance requests. In these reports, states sometimes flag needs that are relevant to arms transfer and SALW controls. For example, Iraq’s 2013 submission indicated a need for support in adopting and using the European Union (EU) military list in its transfer control system. Moreover, states are encouraged to submit national implementation action plans, to indicate their priorities for implementing the key provisions of the resolution. These action plans could highlight assistance needs; however, to date, none of the MENA states has submitted such a plan.

There are also other avenues that MENA countries can use to identify and communicate their assistance needs and receive support, including by reaching out bilaterally to donors. Yet if used consistently, the instruments described above could help states to request assistance in ways that are more visible to a wider range of donors and assistance providers, at the same time as avoiding the duplication and overlap of projects. However, as described above, not all states in the region have made full use of these tools and arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance needs may therefore be under-represented.

Mapping assistance provided in MENA

SIPRI’s database of ATT-relevant cooperation and assistance activities is a useful tool to obtain an overview of the arms transfer and SALW control assistance that states in different regions of the world have received since 2012, and complements information that can be gathered through the instruments described above. The platform provides details on, among others, the topics and themes that these activities have addressed, their objectives and the actors that have either carried out such activities or provided their funding. In 2022 SIPRI updated the database with recent assistance activities implemented in MENA countries.

An overview of arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance in MENA

As of mid November 2022, the SIPRI database contained information about 979 assistance activities implemented in Africa, the Caribbean, East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and South East Asia since at least 2012. Of these, 101 activities have involved one or more countries in MENA.

The majority of activities involving MENA countries included a focus on ‘SALW controls’ (79 activities), although many also covered aspects related to ‘transfer controls’ of conventional arms more generally (61) (see figures 1 and 2). SALW control-related activities focused in particular on ‘inventory and stockpile management’ (27), ‘tracing’ (26) and ‘marking’ (19). Examples include the work that the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has conducted to improve the safety, security and management of the Lebanese armed forces’ ammunition and INTERPOL’s training sessions on how to use the Illicit Arms Records and tracing Management System (iARMS). Transfer control-related activities, such as assistance to North African countries in the area of customs procedures, focused for the most part on ‘risk assessments’ (19), ‘transit and trans-shipment controls’ (19) and ‘border controls’ (19).

Figure 1

Figure 2

In both cases, whether focused on SALW controls or transfer controls, the activities prioritized ‘institutional capacity building’ and ‘sensitization and outreach’ objectives (see figure 3). A high number of activities (44) also included a focus on ‘diversion’. Other cross-cutting themes that were largely reflected in assistance activities implemented in MENA were ‘regional cooperation’ (57) and ‘international instruments’ (50) (see figure 4).

Figure 3

Figure 4At the subregional level, Algeria (47), Morocco (46) and Tunisia (46) have been involved in the highest number of activities in North Africa (see figure 5).

Figure 5.3

In the Middle East, Egypt (40), Lebanon (27) and Jordan (26) have been involved in the highest number of activities, while Iran (1) and Israel (2) have been involved in the fewest (see figure 6).  

Figure 6

The main assistance implementers and donors in MENA

Many of the activities in the SIPRI database involving MENA countries have been conducted in the framework of EU-funded projects. At least 16 of these activities have been part of the Conventional Arms Export Control Outreach Project (COARM OP). The programme, which is funded by the EU and implemented by the German Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA), is currently in its fifth phase. COARM OP aims at improving arms export controls in non-EU countries through several activities, such as national, regional or cross-regional workshops, study visits and, since 2020, remote assistance. Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia have been beneficiaries since COARM OP was first launched in 2009, while Jordan and Lebanon joined in 2018.

The EU also funds a programme implemented by the Small Arms Survey, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization in partnership with the League of Arab States (LAS). The EU–LAS project, which was launched in 2018 and entered its second phase in 2021, aims at supporting LAS countries in building national capacities to combat illicit flows of SALW. These countries can request tailored support on the basis of their needs and through activities (three of which are included in the SIPRI database) such as subregional workshops, as well as in-country and online training.

Further, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), an organization that tracks illegal weapons in conflicts, has supported MENA countries in combating the proliferation of illicit weapons. The SIPRI database includes three activities referring to assistance that CAR has provided to Iraq, with funding from Germany. CAR also runs the EU-funded iTrace project, which supports conflict-affected countries, including some in MENA, to understand the sources and dynamics of diversion that could help them in building tailored policy responses.

Other activities in which MENA countries have been involved consistently over the years are the executive courses organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, with support from various donors (e.g. Sweden, Switzerland and the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation). These include five courses specifically aimed at supporting the implementation of the ATT and five courses focused on building arms control-related capacities in MENA. The work of parliamentary organizations to raise awareness about effective SALW controls and around the scope of relevant international instruments is also featured in the database.

Previous analysis that SIPRI conducted in 2018 has also shown the role that other international organizations (e.g. UN agencies) and regional organizations (e.g. the Permanent Peace Movement, PPM, in Lebanon or the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding, CCCPA) have played since 2012 in delivering assistance.

Matching assistance needs with assistance provided

The high number of activities with a thematic focus on ‘SALW controls’ and ‘diversion’ appears consistent with the need to enhance SALW control systems in MENA and tackle one of the main issues that the region faces. The many activities that include ‘regional cooperation’ in turn reflect the importance of working with neighbours to address this issue. However, MENA currently lacks a strong regional organization that could play a central role in coordinating or delivering arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance in a similar way to how this has occurred in other regions of the world. LAS has played this role to a limited extent, but its regional coverage does not encompass all of MENA and its effectiveness has been hampered by internal divisions.

Further, there is a high disparity in terms of the issues that individual MENA countries confront. Some countries, for example, are affected by armed conflicts, while others have more developed control systems and require more advanced forms of assistance—or can even provide assistance themselves, as Algeria has noted in its UNPOA reports. In order to cope with this diversity, some assistance programmes, such as COARM OP or the EU–LAS project, offer more tailored training to countries that have previously been involved in their activities. For instance, in the context of COARM OP, the capacity of states as arms producers or importers and the maturity of their arms export control systems are among the factors taken into account.

In terms of the ATT, there has been only limited involvement of MENA countries in activities explicitly aimed at supporting it. This is not surprising, however, given the recent lack of progress towards additional MENA countries becoming states parties to the treaty. When ATT-focused assistance has been provided, it has either not addressed MENA specifically or it has aimed more broadly at raising awareness about the treaty. Therefore, capacity-building programmes that are not framed as directly supporting ATT implementation have been a more successful option for providing assistance in arms transfer controls in the region. Yet internal political instability has also been a challenge. For example, Lebanon is the only MENA state that was selected as a beneficiary of assistance projects funded by the ATT Voluntary Trust Fund—one in 2019, addressing its arms transfer regulation framework, and the other in 2021, aimed at improving stockpile management. However, the first project was discontinued due to the political situation in the country and the second was withdrawn.

It is notable that the number of activities in the database providing legal or legislative assistance has remained quite low, in line with the last analysis of assistance in MENA that SIPRI conducted in 2018. This is despite the fact that this kind of support is made available by different programmes and that some MENA countries have requested it in their UNPOA reports.

Finally, fewer activities have been implemented since 2018 compared with the period 2012–18 previously mapped by SIPRI. While this is partly due to the shorter time frame covered by this round of data collection, the Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to disrupting the implementation of several programmes. Moreover, some of the actors that were previously identified as assistance implementers, including regional organizations such as the PPM and the CCCPA, appear to have been less active in this field in the past four years or more.

The future of arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance in MENA

SIPRI’s latest mapping of arms transfer and SALW control-related assistance activities in MENA suggests that efforts have focused on supporting countries in building capacity in areas that are key to preventing, identifying and addressing diversion of conventional weapons, particularly of SALW. However, the role that international assistance can play in relation to other issues that have been documented in the region, such as illicit arms transfers that violate arms embargoes or end-user assurances, is more limited. Wider adherence to internationally and legally binding instruments like the ATT could help to encourage MENA countries to also abide by these norms.

MENA countries currently seem more willing to engage in, and are in need of, assistance programmes that cover the technical implementation of aspects of SALW controls, which could help them to address their most pressing conventional arms control-related challenges—most notably diversion. This focus is also in line with the interest MENA countries have shown in participating in UNPOA meetings. In addition, technical assistance focused on SALW controls may be helpful to improve coherence between these diplomatic processes and the work of national agencies dealing concretely with the implementation of such controls.

In the future, progress could build on the long-term presence and engagement of donors such as the EU and Germany, which have been funding and running assistance activities in MENA for many years. They have had some success in establishing trust and forging effective working relationships with MENA partners. Going forward, this may prove helpful in overcoming regional sensitivities related to the ATT or could serve as the basis for promoting and improving regional or subregional coordination. MENA countries that are now able to access relatively advanced forms of training on SALW control-related matters, and others, have coordinated or even provided assistance in the field. This shows that some countries in MENA may be able to pass on the knowledge that they have acquired, creating potential additional opportunities for regional coordination in the future. The EU–LAS project could have a similar effect and is also a good example of the key role that bilateral cooperation can play in facilitating assistance in arms transfer and SALW controls. Notably, the EU–LAS Strategic Dialogue has led to the creation of a Working Group on Weapons of Mass Destruction and Arms Control, which defines priorities for concrete cooperation in this area.

While increased bilateral and regional cooperation can be a useful means to identify and address needs in MENA, reporting assistance requests through the relevant multilateral instruments will continue to play an important role. Donors and implementers of assistance in the region will also have to monitor how countries’ needs and internal situations evolve. Finally, as the military capabilities of MENA countries continue to develop, through arms imports and advances in national arms industries, assistance programmes will need to take this into account as they move forward and, for instance, focus on establishing or improving import controls and reporting on arms transfers.


Giovanna Maletta is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director for the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.
Lauriane Héau is a Researcher in the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.