Neither America’s slow retreat from the Middle East nor the region’s intractable ills have hampered efforts by Arab countries to reshape themselves in the face of swiftly changing geopolitical realities. The threats to progress are many — and none is more potent or insidious than the rise of transnational organized crime.
More than 75 percent of the world’s population live in states associated with high levels of crime and low levels of resistance to it. At least five of the top 25 countries crippled by organized crime, often brokered by state officials and their clients, are in the Arab world.
The most pervasive crimes are human trafficking, illicit arms sales, the production and distribution of narcotics, wildlife crimes, and mineral resource theft — all of which occur in volatile conflict-prone areas or zones controlled by non-state actors. This criminality is enabled and encouraged by secretive offshore banking, third-party jurisdictions, little to no rule of law, high levels of corruption, and a catastrophic lack of interest by the international community in curbing such activities.
Transnational crime is a threat to development, governance, stability and security, and is one of the biggest challenges the region has yet to confront. Worse yet, the more time governments take to act decisively against transnational crime, the more likely it is for illicit economies to spring up in even the most stable, highly connected and diverse regions.
As a result, criminals and their enablers end up benefiting from the flexibility to operate or thrive almost everywhere, from inaccessible rebel-held wildernesses to sophisticated commercial cities. Meanwhile, ordinary people in some of the world’s poorest nations end up trapped in these illicit economies as they try to grind out a living with a lack of viable alternatives.
Numerous studies illustrate how pervasive 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, since violence and the absence of the rule of law supply ample encouragement for illicit actors to engage in, and profit from, migrant smuggling.
Numerous studies illustrate how pervasive organized crime has become, especially in the Arab region.
The region is also home to at least four of the world’s worst countries for illicit arms dealing. Yemen and Libya are probably the largest markets for trafficking arms, sourced from captured weapons caches and supplied by external actors. It is shocking to witness everything from handguns to armored vehicles and tanks available for sale in open-air markets.
Many dismiss this trade as a natural byproduct of protracted wars in those countries, but the security risks are compounded by the availability and ease of acquisition of such dangerous weaponry. Libya’s porous borders and Yemen’s largely unpoliced coastline at Bab El-Mandeb, the strategic strait that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, mean illicit arms are easily transferrable to volatile regions from central Africa to Southeast Asia —for the right price, of course.
The narcotics trade, another area of transnational criminal activity, has already turned Syria into the Arab world’s first narco-state —the world’s largest producer, seller, and distributor of synthetic drugs that are smuggled into other MENA countries and Europe. Lebanon, Morocco, and Sudan have also become sources for the illicit cultivation of cannabis, with Sudan generating over $7 billion in profits for criminals in one year alone —$1 billion more than its official GDP.
Iraq has its own unique challenges from transnational crime. The country has lost an estimated $150 billion in oil theft since the invasion in 2003, which amounts to irrecoverable losses of as much as $8.3 billion a year, or about 10 percent of the government’s 2021 budget.
Confronting organized crime, or trying to curb illicit activities that span borders and jurisdictions, is almost impossible. Worse yet, nations cannot unilaterally embark on a crusade against criminals and their enablers; the nature of transnational crime is that even legal entities of well-intentioned governments are often forced to work with criminal organizations or their enablers. Organized crime has become decentralized, ubiquitous, untethered from jurisdictional limitations, and deeply entrenched within the structures of states through corruption or coercion. Private sector entities, for instance, often find themselves trapped in a strange dilemma of either becoming involuntary enablers or ceasing operations altogether. Development agencies often find their operating principles colliding with woeful realities on the ground, where securing desired outcomes may necessitate co-opting criminals, thereby indirectly funding them.
Many people may not even be aware that the entities they depend on for employment or funding are actually fronts for organized crime. This complicates any measure to dismantle these organizations, root out corruption, and prosecute the criminals. For the MENA region in particular, transnational crime and illicit economies combine to stratify societies. Affluent elites enjoy the proceeds 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, incubating more corruption in the process. Meanwhile, the well-to-do become even more out of touch, since their wealth — amounting to between 8 and 30 percent of GDP — is secure in secret offshore jurisdictions that make illicit financial flows difficult to trace.
The challenges and risks that stem from transnational crime are no secret. Unprecedented efforts are going to be needed to stamp out most forms of organized crime to achieve sustainable development goals. Otherwise, even if the global community managed to spend an estimated $1.4 trillion a year to achieve those goals, a substantial portion of those funds would simply end up in offshore bank accounts — enriching the few at the expense of the many.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell