North Africa’s Defense Expenditure: Serious Concern or Legitimate Spending?
[The North Africa Journal | By Arezki Daoud] Recent releases of defense expenditure data raised questions about North Africa’s procurement spending on military equipment. And so the question remains whether the billions spent in the region’s armies should be a source of concern or are we over thinking it?
Indeed a lot of money is being spent on military equipment in North Africa (see charts at end of this article) and around the world. But despite the billions of dollars earmarked by governments to beef up their defenses, popular uprisings are proven to be more difficult to quell.
The Sweden-based think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says “the states of the Middle East and North Africa have been regarded as potentially lucrative markets for arms exporters thanks to the resource revenue windfall of recent years. Interstate and internal tensions provide drivers for demand as well as give cause for concern.” SPRI adds “during 2006–10, arms imports were particularly high in the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt and Algeria. Based on existing orders and known procurement plans, Saudi Arabian and Moroccan arms imports are expected to rise significantly in the coming years.”
According to Pieter Wezeman of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program “Although Libya placed only limited orders for major conventional weapons following the lifting of the UN arms embargo in 2003, in recent years it has served as an excellent illustration of the competition between major suppliers France, Italy, Russia and the UK for orders. However, there are limits to what supplier states are willing to provide, as shown by the imposition of United Nations Security Council arms embargoes on the supply of most major weapons to Iran in June 2010 and for a broad range of military and paramilitary equipment to Libya in February 2011.”
Globally, the think tank reports that the average volume of worldwide arms transfers in 2006–10 was 24 per cent higher than in 2001–2005. The major recipient region in 2006–10 remained Asia and Oceania (43 per cent of all imports), followed by Europe (21 per cent), the Middle East (17 per cent), the Americas (12 per cent) and Africa (7 per cent).
An area of concern is clearly Asia where the four largest importers of conventional weapons in 2006–10 are located. India grabbed 9% of all imports, followed by China (6%), South Korea (6%) and Pakistan (5%) with a broad range of major conventional weapons, in particular combat aircraft and naval systems.
From a supplier standpoint, the United States remains the world’s largest exporter of military equipment according to SIPRI. It accounted for 30% of global arms exports in 2006–10. Adding, during this period, 44% of US deliveries went to Asia and Oceania, 28 per cent to the Middle East and 19 per cent to Europe.
While SIPRI’s above figures focus on armaments’ procurement, North Africa as a whole spent in 2009 some $9.5 billion in its defense budgets above and beyond purchasing. That included Egypt but excluded Libya. If one adds the conservative figure, on the low end, of $1 billion to account for the Libyan budget that would raise total spending to $10.5 billion. In this context, Algeria is still by far the biggest budget holder in the region at 54% of the total amount. See chart below. Algeria’s share expanded quickly from the mid-teens in the mid-1990s, aided by expanding oil revenues and fueled by the country’s needs to up its security posture.
While the figures look rather alarming, from an economic standpoint defense spending as a share of GDP remains somewhat under control, typically below 4% of gross domestic product. The case that has been worrying many observers is the rise of Algeria’s spending on its defenses. However, such spending is still about 3% of GDP, a relatively small figure considering the size of the economy.
For Algeria, the recent spending spree comes as a result of its aging military hardware. For decades Algeria was unable to update its capabilities given its financial troubles amid a severe political crisis. Flush with oil money now, its $5 billion per year spending is not seen by Algiers as extravagant. For Algiers, not only such spending is necessary in light of its anti-terror activity but also given its geostrategic position in the region. Algiers looks at the east and sees the continued aggressive stance of Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi. Now in trouble with his own civil war, Gaddafi has long been seeking to degrade most of the countries in the region with such ideas as a Touareg nation that would take away territories from several Saharian countries including Algeria. With continued oil revenues, there was no doubt that Libya would also have greater desire to militarize.
Looking west, Algiers sees the lack of resolution over the Western Sahara conflict as a reason to worry about Morocco. Although we do not believe Morocco and Algeria will ever resort to a military conflict, the two could use their military strength to somewhat influence negotiations on the outcome of the conflict. As SIPRI pointed out, Morocco is also poised to up its military spending, and there is no shortage of financial support there, including Saudi Arabia. When Algiers looks south, it looks at growing danger in the Sahel and further down with Al Qaeda’s menace looming as a reality or just as a fear.
Still broadly, Algeria is in a unique historical position that would force it to become a more vocal player on the African scene. Typically, the Algerian political and government elites do not like to talk about foreign issues. For example, Algeria was the only nation with Syria to abstain from voting with the Arab League on a no-fly zone over Libya. But when they do express themselves, it typically happens confidentially and off the record. Yet with expanding revenues, a big population, in a region in turmoil, Algiers will inevitably becom more assertive in regional affairs. Western powers would want to have an inclusive Algeria both for strategic and practical reasons. Furthermore, a symbolic event happened last month that propelled Algeria into a new league of nations. The splitting of Sudan into two countries means that Algeria is now the biggest sovereign and national territory in Africa. Although very symbolic, the meaning of such position has not be lost to many Algerians who would want to use such posture to begin to project influence in the region. For many politicians we spoke with, Algeria is now considered as important as Nigeria and South Africa and that means dealing with North African issues may have to transit through Algiers to the chagrin of Muamar Gaddafi. Yet, the Algerian diplomacy remains very amateurish as this stage. The inability of its foreign affairs leaders, including the President to clearly articulate a position vis-a-vis Libya is indicative of problems in the halls of foreign affairs. International issues have long been the sole domain of President Bouteflika, but the health issues of the aging president mean that Algeria's foreign policy positions will remain murky in the foreseeable future.