How organized crime is bleeding the Middle East dry

How organized crime is bleeding the Middle East dry

Members of a Saudi anti-narcotics team show a drug shipment seized from traffickers linked to Iran-backed Houthi terrorists in Yemen. (SPA file photo)

Neither America’s slow withdrawal from the Middle East nor the intractable evils of the region have hampered Arab countries’ efforts to reshape themselves in the face of rapidly changing geopolitical realities. The threats to progress are many – and none more powerful or insidious than the rise of transnational organized crime.

More than 75 percent of the world’s population lives in states associated with high levels of crime and low levels of resistance. At least five of the top 25 countries crippled by organized crime, often negotiated by state officials and their clients, are in the Arab world.

The most prevalent crimes are human trafficking, illicit arms sales, drug production and distribution, wildlife crimes and theft of mineral resources, all of which occur in conflict-prone areas. or areas controlled by non-state actors. This crime is made possible and encouraged by covert offshore banking, third-party jurisdictions, little or no rule of law, high levels of corruption, and a catastrophic lack of interest on the part of the international community to curb such activity.

Transnational crime is a threat to development, governance, stability and security, and is one of the greatest challenges the region still faces. Worse yet, the longer it takes governments to act decisively against transnational crime, the more likely it is that illicit economies will emerge even in the most stable, connected and diverse regions.

As a result, criminals and their enablers end up with the flexibility to operate or thrive almost anywhere, from unreachable rebel-held wilderness areas to sophisticated trading towns. Meanwhile, ordinary people in some of the world’s poorest countries find themselves trapped in these illicit economies as they try to make a living with a lack of viable alternatives.

Numerous studies illustrate how ubiquitous organized crime has become, especially in the Arab region. At least three Arab countries rank among the worst in the world for human trafficking. In Syria, Libya and Iraq, conflicts have only exacerbated the problem, as violence and the lack of rule of law amply encourage illicit actors to engage in and profit from smuggling of migrants. .

Numerous studies illustrate how ubiquitous organized crime has become, especially in the Arab region.

Hafed Al Ghwell

The region is also home to at least four of the worst countries in the world for illicit arms trafficking. Yemen and Libya are probably the biggest markets for arms trafficking, sourced from caches of captured weapons and provided by external actors. It is shocking to see everything from handguns to armored vehicles and tanks available for sale in open air markets.

Many dismiss this trade as a natural by-product of the protracted wars in these countries, but the security risks are compounded by the availability and ease of acquisition of these dangerous weapons. Libya’s porous borders and largely unguarded Yemen coastline at Bab El-Mandeb, the strategic strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, mean illicit weapons are easily transferable to volatile regions from Central Africa to South East Asia – for the right price, of course.

Drug trafficking, another area of ​​transnational criminal activity, has already made Syria the first narco-state in the Arab world – the world’s largest producer, seller and distributor of synthetic drugs smuggled into other countries. in the MENA region and in Europe. Lebanon, Morocco and Sudan have also become sources of illicit cannabis cultivation, with Sudan generating more than $ 7 billion in profits for criminals in a single year, or $ 1 billion more than its official GDP.

Iraq has its own unique challenges in dealing with transnational crime. The country has lost around $ 150 billion in oil thefts since the 2003 invasion, representing sunk losses of up to $ 8.3 billion per year, or about 10% of the government’s 2021 budget.

It is almost impossible to fight organized crime or try to curb illicit activities that cross borders and jurisdictions. Worse yet, nations cannot unilaterally embark on a crusade against criminals and their enablers; the nature of transnational crime is that even the legal entities of well-meaning governments are often forced to work with criminal organizations or their facilitators. Organized crime has become decentralized, ubiquitous, detached from jurisdictional boundaries and deeply rooted in state structures through corruption or coercion. Private sector entities, for example, often find themselves caught in the strange dilemma of becoming unwitting facilitators or going out of business altogether. Development agencies often see their operating principles collide with grim realities on the ground, where achieving desired results may require co-opting criminals, thereby indirectly funding them.

Many people may not even be aware that the entities they depend on for their jobs or funding are in fact fronts for organized crime. This complicates any action to dismantle these organizations, eradicate corruption and prosecute criminals. For the MENA region in particular, transnational crime and illicit economies combine to stratify societies. The wealthy elites enjoy the benefits of a growing economy at the expense of the poor, who suffer violence perpetrated or facilitated by criminals. Widening inequality gaps stifle development and economic growth, thereby incubating more corruption. Meanwhile, the better-off are becoming even more disconnected, as their wealth – which represents between 8 and 30% of GDP – is secure in secret offshore jurisdictions that make it difficult to trace illicit financial flows.

The challenges and risks that stem from transnational crime are no secret. Unprecedented efforts will be needed to eradicate most forms of organized crime in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Otherwise, even if the global community managed to spend around $ 1.4 trillion a year to achieve these goals, a substantial portion of those funds would simply end up in offshore bank accounts, enriching a few at the expense of many.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors of this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News


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