Morality and export

International Journal of Commerce and Management

ISSN: 1056-9219

Article publication date: 28 June 2011



Ali, A.J. (2011), "Morality and export", International Journal of Commerce and Management, Vol. 21 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Morality and export

Article Type: Morality and export From: International Journal of Commerce and Management, Volume 21, Issue 2

In its cover story, “America’s Hottest Export: Weapons,” Fortune magazine indicated that the defense industry has found a strong partner in the race to arm the world, President Obama. The magazine reported that “American officials (have) acted as de facto pitchmen for US-made weapons,” and increased weapon export to several countries, mainly the Arab states, The United Arab Emirates in 2011 signed a $7bn deal to buy an advanced missile defense system from Lockheed, while Saudi Arabia signed one of the biggest weapons deals in recent history totaling $60bn in 2010. The latter package includes 70 Apache attack helicopters, made by Boeing, and a fleet of F-15 s. According to Fortune, this package is the “biggest overseas arms sale in recent memory.”

The Los Angeles Times (Connors, 2011) reported that “Arabs who have taken to the streets have experienced ‘Made in USA’ tear gas used by repressive governments to kill and maim unarmed protesters.” Likewise, writing in New York Times, Kristof (2011) stated that it is “more wrenching to watch America’s ally, Bahrain, […] use American tanks, guns and tear gas as well as foreign mercenaries to crush a pro-democracy movement – as we stay mostly silent.”

The increase of weapons export to the Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, should be alarming for those who focus on healthy global business environments and those who are concerned with development issues. While many in the West may justify sales of such dangerous weapons as a means of recycling oil money, there are others, who question the usefulness of such exports and the risk to human and economic development. In The Arab World Competitiveness Review 2010, the World Economic Forum (2010) reported that the Arab World failed to increase its global market share and the region was not able to generate sufficient jobs for its growing populations, therefore situating it among the highest in the world in terms of unemployment rates. Likewise, the UN’s Arab Human Development Report 2009 documented that the Arab countries were generally less industrialized in 2007 than in 1970. The report, too, highlighted the fact that about 36 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty and the region as a whole suffers from a widespread absence of human security, which has held back tangible progress. It has left the general population living in a vicious cycle, where both freedom from fear and freedom from want are lacking.

The absence of freedom from fear and freedom from want is a predictable result of the presence of authoritarian regimes, which have no regard for the welfare and prosperity of their people. The recent Arab popular uprisings evidences that the export of weapons to these regimes is not only economically counterproductive, but it is a corrupt practice and morally indefensible. Furthermore, most of the exported weapons are highly advanced and the receiving countries have no need for them except for oppressing their population. In addition, scarce resources are squandered and the people are deprived from finding economic opportunities and having a decent living standard. It is our belief that money would be better spent on improving the welfare of the people rather than on arms.

In the short and long-terms, spending billions of dollars on buying advanced weapons instead of investing in productive activities will endanger the future of the Arab World, paralyze its economic progress, deepen dependency on foreign countries, prevent it from being a productive actor in the global marketplace, and ultimately increase the threat to world peace and stability. Indeed, human insecurity and the accompanying lack of freedom from fear and freedom from want will not only intensify the prospects for armed conflicts and increasing migration and refugee problems, but will also lead to a deepening economic crises and place severe restrictions on human capacity for creative economic and scientific involvement and innovative activities.

Export activities are generally part of international marketing and trade functions. While both of them have specific guidelines for ethical and moral conduct, on the subject of export, morality is often violated. This is because greed and nationalistic claims projected as “national security” concerns influence what items should be exported to what countries. For example, the USA and many other industrialized countries, while advocating free trade, on many occasions invoke national security to withhold items from exportation to specific countries such as Iran, Libya, Iraq, etc. Furthermore, the subject of morality in an international context is further complicated when various actors and countries are engaged. What is considered morally acceptable behavior in one country may not be considered acceptable in others, thereby clouding the issue at hand and opening up varying interpretations.

Morality refers to the code of conduct sanctioned by members of a specific group or society. Therefore, judging whether or not specific conduct is morally driven is difficult in circumstances, where the interaction is international in nature. However, there are certain moral and ethical guidelines, which are formulated and disseminated by international organizations, especially those that are associated with the United Nations. One of the most important guidelines is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Three articles are relevant to the exportation of weapons. These are: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3); “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5); and “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (Article 9).

Weapons supplied to authoritarian regimes, as in the case of Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt, have been and are still used to kill innocent people or to curb their freedom and liberty. For years these weapons have been instrumental in preventing individuals from exercising their rights as citizens to live in peace and without torture or restrictions and to rethink independently their future and the future of their children. To be specific, however, the following questions may be useful in judging whether the export of sophisticated weapons to other countries is moral or not:

  • Does the exported weapon purposefully seek to strengthen authoritarian regimes and their hold on power?

  • Will the exported weapons be used to physically harm citizens or limit their freedom?

  • Is it likely that the exported weapons are likely to lead to hindering citizens’ participation in the political and economic spheres?

  • Do the exported weapons help in marginalizing certain groups because of their ethnic, religious, or ideological identity/beliefs?

  • Are the exported weapons likely to lead to increasing environmental and economic risks to the population and to future generations?

  • Do the exported weapons help in increasing the likelihood of regional conflict or internal strife?

  • Is the export of weapons purposefully sought to divert scarce resources of the importing country to the exporting country?

  • Is the export of weapons purposefully sought to deepen security dependency on the exporting country?

An affirmative answer to any of the above concerns puts into question the morality of the export action. Furthermore, a positive answer to any of the preceding questions violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that most of the weapons exports are driven by considerations, which are not remotely inspired by morality. In fact, weapons exports seldom meet standards of morality.

The Fortune report indicated that Washington justifies its export of weapons to the Arab countries by the need for security (shoring up security for friendly regimes), diplomacy (meeting the needs of the Arab regimes), and creating jobs at home. In the face of political instability, widespread destruction of property, and human lives in Arab countries, these justifications do not hold up to any measure of morality. Indeed, at the end, one has to confront the question “Does a trade-off of lives versus creating jobs meet the basic moral standards?” Certainly, the answer is No!

Abbas J. Ali


Connors, P. (2011), “Blowback: weapons of Middle East oppression, ‘Made in U.S.A.’”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, available at:

Kimes, M. (2011), “America’s hottest export: weapons’”, Fortune, February 28, pp. 63–73

Kristof, N. (2011), “Bahrain pulls a Qaddafi”, New York Times, March 17, available at:

United Nations Development Programme (2009), Arab Human Development Report 2009, UN Plaza, New York, NY

World Economic Forum (2010), The Arab World Competitiveness Review 2010, World Economic Forum

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