Weak Civil Society Engagement and Public Awareness of WMD Disarmament in the Arab World: Anomaly or Global Phenomenon?

Weak Civil Society Engagement and Public Awareness of WMD Disarmament in the Arab World: Anomaly or Global Phenomenon?

Weak Civil Society Engagement and Public Awareness of WMD Disarmament in the Arab World: Anomaly or Global Phenomenon?

GCSP Alumni Note

By Zain Hussain


In the United States during the Cold War, mothers’ concerns over radioactive materials getting into milk cartons evolved into fully fledged women’s anti-nuclear civil activism in the form of protests, assisting scientific research on radioactive toxicity and political lobbying. Global civilian anti-nuclear movements, research, and grassroots institutions in Europe, North and South America, and Asia in part led to the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1962 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Yet, despite all the public awareness campaigns and disarmament policy research, none of the nuclear-armed states,1 whether party to the NPT or not, have eliminated their nuclear weapons (with the exception of South Africa). International arms control regimes have faced major challenges and nuclear-armed states are still modernising their armaments, while some are even increasing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

In international disarmament conferences, one region has often been presented as an anomaly: the Arab world. In the 22 Arab states, public awareness and grassroots civil society activity promoting the creation of a zone in the Middle East free of both nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – i.e. biological and chemical weapons, which could have devastating humanitarian consequences and lasting environmental impacts – are seemingly non-existent. Discussion and awareness of the topic are solely confined to the elite members of diplomatic, military and academic circles in the Arab world. Added to the many security complications present in the Middle East, the lack of public awareness and restricted freedom of civil society engagement are seen partly as an internationally accepted reason for the stagnation of the WMD disarmament process in the region.2 In the words of one anonymous diplomat, “Arabs do not care, and their leaders do not want to disarm”. But is the Arab world truly unique in this manner? 

With the failure of civil society to pressure or cajole nuclear-armed states to commit to a real nuclear disarmament process and the increasing global security dilemma, one question this note will tackle is whether or not an active civil society would be able to significantly contribute to a WMD disarmament process in the Arab world. Rather than providing a comprehensive overview of this issue, the note attempts to prompt further examination of whether or not the Arab world is unique in its apathy towards disarmament, and if this is a sign of a global phenomenon that characterises the governments and people of other regions too. Furthermore, we will attempt to make a case for the re-examination of the fundamental ways in which global disarmament policy institutions and civil society talk about and deal with WMD disarmament in the Middle East.

Due to the limited literature on this topic, the note is largely based on the gathering of perspectives, interviews and observations. Identities are kept anonymous.


Barriers to civil society engagement in the Arab world

The Arab world is viewed as a potential hotbed for nuclear and WMD proliferation in the region due to regional rivalries and hegemonic struggles. To some, the United Nations General Assembly Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in November 2019 gave new life to WMD disarmament efforts in the Middle East. However, while diplomats in the Arab world and internationally celebrated what appeared to be a small victory after decades of fruitless attempts, major obstacles to WMD disarmament in the Middle East still remain in place. One issue is the lack of general awareness of Arab people about this topic and the lack of civil society initiatives, both grassroots and international, to prompt Arab leadership to take more active steps towards WMD disarmament. Measures of progress are tied to purely diplomatic developments between states, and are mainly confined to conferences and final documents that do not receive significant airtime on the Arab news cycle.3

In general, there are many barriers to civil society expression and action in the Arab world. Civil society has aimed to fill the gaps in covering social, cultural and economic issues, and was mostly active in the 1990s. Since the Arab Spring of 2011, civil society organisations have faced increasing threats in the Arab world due to increasing state interference and funding challenges. In terms of civil society support for WMD disarmament in the Arab world, no data is available to show its prominence, while even within environmentalist circles, no related activities are known to be under way in the region.

In an increasingly volatile and unstable region, Arab citizens’ concerns are very immediate. Thus, the issue of WMD disarmament in the Middle East and its related environmental concerns takes a back seat in both civil society and everyday life. People are seldom concerned with the issue of WMD, let alone invest time and energy in civil society action devoted to it. Moreover, the proliferation of conventional arms in war zones and black markets in the Arab world are far more immediate arms-related concerns to civilians and Arab governments. There is also consensus that, even if an active civil society existed, due to the sensitivity of discussing WMD, concerns over limits to freedom of speech would pose significant challenges.

Despite the existence of many international organisations and global civil society working on the issue of disarmament, international organisations refrain from funding projects that directly involve Arab civil society due to the political and sensitive nature of the topic. Instead, their efforts are limited to Arab countries’ elites in the form of policy training courses for military officials and diplomats and small academic conferences. International organisations can also be deterred from interacting with Arab civil society due to a lack of awareness of Arab cultures, bureaucracy protocols and language barriers. International donors express concerns over funding Arab civil society initiatives due to fears of potential hidden agendas linked to rogue organisations. This blanket distrust prevents proactive civil society initiatives from being acknowledged and supported. Furthermore, there is strong distrust within the Arab world of the true intentions of international funding of Arab civil society in general, which is often perceived as an attempt to meddle in internal state issues.

On the other hand, however, there is genuine international concern that public awareness and an active Arab civil society in support of WMD disarmament might instead foment support for the proliferation of WMD in the region. This fear signals deep Western distrust of their Arab counterparts. On the flipside, this brings to the fore underlying perceptions both in the region and outside it that nuclear-weapon states are protected under the NPT and thus are inclined to implement measures necessary to maintain their hegemony. Such statements must not be interpreted as signalling the potential for WMD proliferation in the Arab world. On the contrary, they show a significant distrust of Western powers’ intentions in their push for the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.


Civil society and disarmament outside the Arab world

While it is important to examine the ways in which lack of civil society engagement in the Arab world impedes progress towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, it is also important to examine whether the existence of an open and active civil society necessarily guarantees meaningful developments in the field of disarmament.

There can be no doubt that civil society engagement helps in this regard. For example, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was a significant player in international efforts to establish an agreement to prevent the development and use of nuclear weapons, which led to the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Civil society succeeded in having New Zealand declared a nuclear-weapon-free zone and banning nuclear-weapons-carrying vessels in its waters, which led the United States to suspend its ANZUS treaty obligations towards New Zealand in 1986.

However, we are now witnessing a time of increased nuclear risks – particularly with the proliferation of disruptive technologies and low-yield capabilities – that significantly increase the risk of escalation in the event of a direct or proxy conflict. Disarmament organisations such as ICAN and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament are constantly attempting to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. However, the sheer complexity and intertwining of security policies with WMD, and the lack of public awareness of increasing nuclear risks and what they really entail, mean that civil society engagement is not likely to yield significant results to raise critical awareness of disarmament issues or achieve the eventual disarmament of nuclear weapons and other WMD.

A number of factors compound these problems. The nature of disarmament activism and civil society work in Western states creates an environment of competition over knowledge resources and available funding. This means that, while various organisations and groups are attempting to achieve meaningful steps towards disarmament, structural issues and accepted professional norms of competition are huge hurdles to unified and comprehensive civil society engagement with the issue of nuclear disarmament. The schism between civil society and policymakers is only widening. The ability of policy researchers to influence policymakers is decreasing, thus rendering the work of many organisations inadequate or even inept, and making it in turn more difficult for them to obtain funding. It is often the case that different organisations perform parallel tasks and often compete over funding, which creates a situation of mass organisational inefficiency in efforts to make collective progress towards nuclear disarmament. As the increasing latency of disruptive technologies and an increasingly changing global security climate become important features of a burgeoning nuclear world order, there is an even greater need than before for different streams of nuclear disarmament work to come together and draw up unified plans.



Given that this is the situation in countries where civil society is more open and free in terms of the issue of nuclear weapons disarmament, important hypothetical questions need to be posed about the Middle East and a prospective zone in the region free of all WMD. If we accept that civil society needs to be open and free in the Arab world in order to make significant headway in disarmament initiatives, what happens once there is an active civil society focusing on this issue? When there are more imminent issues to be dealt with, how could it be guaranteed that there would be a meaningful and comprehensive civil society push for WMD disarmament? How could we be sure that an active Middle East civil society would not suffer the same pitfalls that we are seeing in some nuclear-armed states with relatively open civil societies? How could a comprehensive effort towards disarmament be achieved, given the political and social climate in the Arab world, even after the emergence of an active civil society in the region?

In light of the complexities arising from an honest discussion about a possible WMD-free zone in the Middle East, especially when considering the failings of civil society in some nuclear-armed states to make progress towards achieving nuclear and other WMD disarmament, it is illuminating that the attitude of foreign actors concerned with WMD disarmament in the Middle East remains simplistic. The perpetual singular focus on talking about the establishment of a free and active civil society in “the region” as one of the necessary prerequisites for disarmament in the Middle East exposes its own limitations when advocated by actors who are from Western states with both free civil societies and increasing – or increasingly modernised – nuclear-weapons stockpiles.

We cannot deny that there are pressing concerns in the Arab world. If there are structural and societal difficulties with real engagement on this issue, it is not only because of the existence of obstacles, but also because there are problems with how WMD disarmament work is actually carried out and the question of how to fulfil the region’s protracted security needs. Western democratic governments should put mechanisms in place to encourage increased awareness of researchers’ and civil society’s work to effect change and not perpetuate the status quo. Individuals, organisations and initiatives that support WMD disarmament should actively seek ways to highlight how the existence of WMD affects everyday life and creates a perpetual security risk for everyone in the region – and this starts with engagement. Because there has been little serious discussion on the issue of engagement, the first steps in this regard will require particular attention and innovation. This note does not aim to represent either the Arab world or the Middle East as a unified fabric. We invite further discussion and in-depth analysis of the hurdles to civil society engagement and practical steps towards the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.4

Lastly, this brings us to some sobering questions. Is the Arab world truly unique in its lack of awareness of or concern with the lasting environmental and human dangers of WMD and lack of progress on disarmament? What can be done in a situation in which disarmament institutions and researchers are funded by NPT states parties to dedicate significant resources to research disarmament policies, with little state follow-up on how their valuable research is being considered at the strategic or political level? Thus, is having an active civil society on this topic sufficient assurance that meaningful progress will be made towards WMD disarmament?


1 “Nuclear-armed states” is a phrase encompassing both states possessing nuclear weapons and bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which are also called “nuclear-weapon states” (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), and states armed with nuclear weapons that are not party to the NPT (India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan).

2 As a reminder, in the Middle East and North Africa region, all states except Israel are party to the NPT; all states are party to the Biological Weapons Convention except Egypt, Israel and Syria; and all states are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention except Egypt and Israel. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has only been signed by Algeria and Libya and ratified by the State of Palestine.

3 See, for instance, Ayman Khalil and Marc Finaud (eds), The Conference for a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: A Synopsis of Engagement of International and Regional Organisations, and Civil Society, GCSP and Arab Institute for Security Studies, October 2012.

4 This process of dialogue and engagement is promoted by the Middle East Treaty Organization, which is one of the few civil society initiatives supported by activists and experts from the region (including Israel and Iran) who have worked on a draft WMD-free zone treaty; see www.wmd-free.me.

Zain Hussain, a UK national, is a GCSP alumnus. He currently works in the field of environmental, social and governance (ESG), focusing on defence industry research. He holds a BA in Arabic and Hebrew and an MSc in International Politics. He has worked previously as Quaker Peace & Social Witness for BASIC, focusing on a Middle East disarmament project. He is involved in interfaith dialogue and community cohesion initiatives. He is also a member of the EVN coordinated by BASIC.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this publication are the author’s/authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the GCSP or the members of its Foundation Council. The GCSP is not responsible for the accuracy of the information.