Ever since independence, the military has played an important role in the politics of many countries in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). With time, this influential actor has also become a significant economic player, with non-state armed groups (NSAGs) having also entered the competition for resources and control. What are the underlying reasons for these transformations and what is their impact on society? Businessmen in Arms: How the Military and Other Armed Groups Profit in the MENA Region offers answers to these and other important questions concerning the distribution of power and capital in a number of MENA countries.

The book consists of nine main chapters, in addition to a forward, introduction, conclusion and an outlook. Each chapter is written by a separate scholar, with Zeinab Abul-Magd and Elke Grawert being both authors and overall editors. Elke Grawert is a political scientist and researcher. Zeinab Abul-Magd is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and composed the chapter on Egypt.

The forward and introduction contain information about the historical context in which Businessmen in Arms was written, as well as outlaying the book’s objectives and approach. In these opening sections the authors argue that available theoretical frameworks are insufficient to explain current events in the MENA region, especially following the ‘Arab Spring’. They go on to say that the book ‘is just an undertaking’ to fill in the existing gaps. Chapters 1-6 focus on the economic activities of the military in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Sudan. Chapters 7-9 provide details about the material resources and activities of the regular armies in Yemen, Libya and Syria and of NSAGs in the context of the Arab Spring.

One of the highest merits of Businessmen in Arms is that it is a comparative study, which explains why each chapter follows a similar structure. In doing so, the authors ably combine historical analysis with selected empirical observations. Additionally, they draw on a solid body of evidence in their efforts to paint a clear picture of the transformation of the military’s role, its multiple divisions, subsidiaries and personnel, into economic actors in the case countries. The academics explain the historical conditions that predetermined the significant budgets and powers the various militaries were awarded after their respective countries gained independence, and during the wars fought in the MENA region between 1960-1990.

Furthermore, the authors detail the sequence of events which led to the military becoming major businessmen or “milbus”, as one author labels them whilst describing this phenomenon in Pakistan. As businessmen, the military rely on tax exemptions, massive public contracts and other perks which have permitted them to profit, at the expense of civilian economic actors, while at the same time undermining competitiveness and distorting the economic panorama. The end of each chapter focuses on the challenges posed by the Arab Spring. The multilingual background of the writers and their knowledge of the local language(s) has been beneficial for the preparation of this particular section because it allows them to use relevant secondary sources in addition to primary data gathered through interviews with participants in events, fighters and supporters of the belligerent parties, as well as experts on the subject matter at hand.

The book builds on available literature regarding business activities of the army in other regions and thoroughly examines the economic aspects of civil-military relations in the MENA region. The authors believe that access to material resources defines the dynamics of these relations. By adopting the political economy and social theory approaches, the writers reveal the connection between power, social structures and symbolic guidelines in society. Thus, they explain why most of the MENA countries enjoyed long periods of military rule and why the population perceived military participation in the economy as legitimate. In providing important insights into the security doctrines, class relations and other interactions, the academics disclose “why the nexus between coercion and capital accumulation is so central to MENA political economies”. In the outlook of the book the scholars answer this question, contending that in the majority of the countries, the enrichment of the military has had a damaging impact on its ability to perform its primary responsibility of protecting the state.

A minor flaw in the book is the absence of an explanation of the selection of the cases. Although the authors state that the outcome of the Arab Spring is “the cause for the renewed examination of the economic and political role of the military in the MENA region”, they selected Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan as cases which, though affected, did not themselves witness Arab uprisings. At the same time they left out Iraq and Algeria, despite Algeria being an important country in North Africa, and the complexity of the relation between the Baathist party and the army during the Saddam rule, and the restructuring of the latter after the military intervention in 2003, being particularly interesting in the case of Iraq. Their omissions are also notable when considering how much of an impact these developments had on the emergence and rise of ISIS – the most powerful NSAG in the MENA region during the Arab Spring.

An additional criticism can be aimed at the chapters dedicated to Libya and Syria. Due to the abundance of events which unfolded in their armed conflicts, the chapters dedicated to them are teeming with details about the fighting on the ground and the political development, which may or may not be directly related to the main topic of the book.

Overall, Businessmen in Arms is a valuable contribution to the literature examining the nexus between military power and accumulation of wealth in the MENA region. It offers a good source of information for both students and academics, as well as a solid base for future research. Unlike many other studies, which primarily focus on the theoretical aspects of the problems they discuss, this book can also be beneficial for practitioners, including diplomats, anti-corruption specialists, business analysts and even investigators in the public and private domain, who require information about political figures, public officials and state-owned enterprises for national security or regulatory compliance purposes.  The examples of entities owned by the military while having civilian-sounding names, hidden annual reports and obscure relationships with the state are especially valuable for professionals needing to assess occupational and jurisdictional risks.