David Hedengren
Last updated: 9 December, 2011

Poor transparency on defence budgets in the Middle East

A recent report on defence spending transparency from Transparency International (TI), an NGO based in Germany that aims to reduce global corruption, puts The Middle East in the bottom compared to other regions. The Middle East and North African (MENA) countries included in the study were Lebanon, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, which all had the lowest possible score, while Jordan, Morocco and Turkey scored low to moderate.

According to the Open Budget Initiative, a global research and advocacy programme, of the countries scoring low in the MENA region only three publish a general budget proposal, three publish an enacted budget and none publish audits. All of the MENA countries in the report either spend more than 8% of their budgets on secret items, or the percentage is not known.

“The legislatures are not provided with adequate information about spending on secret items, for example, national security and military intelligence spending. It may be provided only in highly aggregated form,” said the report author Leah Wawro of TI’s Defence and Security Programme.

While it is difficult to conclude on any trends as this was the first time the study was conducted, she notes a couple of interesting things on the subject coming out of the region recently.

”In Egypt, prior to the recent elections, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) produced a ‘constitutional principles document’ that was meant to guide the drafting of the Egyptian constitution. One of those principles was that SCAF would be the only body allowed to analyse and debate the defence budget. This principle was rejected by all parties and movements across the board.”

Another key development takes place in Tunisia, which was not included in the report.

“The TI Defence and Security Programme has not yet done work with Tunisia in this area, but I’ve heard from other organisations working in the country that there seems to be an increasing openness towards publishing defence and security information, including audits and progress reviews,” said Leah Wawro.

Her advice to regional leaders is that accountability is the first step towards creating an effective defence and security establishment that the public respects and trusts. Working with civil society organisations and journalists and ensure they have access to information is another important issue.

“Take the opportunity of the Arab Spring to lead change towards greater transparency and accountability. Publishing defence spending information is a good place to start. This is an issue that people in the region are starting to raise, and if a government wants to maintain legitimacy it must be accountable to them. If leaders publish the information, it also gives them an opportunity to explain their national defence and security strategy, and justify why they are spending on certain items.”

According to Leah Wawro, there is no conflict between maintaining security about important secret items and being accountable to your people. The key is legislative oversight and monitoring. Leaders should create independent, effective audit bodies with defence and security in their remit.

“Corruption weakens defence and security establishments, makes them less effective, and diminishes public trust in them. It’s in any government’s best interest, particularly in an often unstable region, to take steps towards greater accountability and transparency.”