The List

Why Is the U.S. Selling Billions in Weapons to Autocrats?

The export of American arms to countries around the world -- even those actively repressing their own citizens -- is booming.

Every May and June, different branches of the State Department paint contrasting portraits of how Washington views dozens of strategically significant countries around the world, in seemingly rivalrous reports by its Human Rights and Political-Military Affairs bureaus.

The former routinely criticizes other nations for a lack of fealty to democratic principles, citing abuses of the right to expression, assembly, speech, and political choice. The latter tallies the government's latest successes in the export of American weaponry, often to the same countries criticized by the former.

This year was no different. The State Department's Military Assistance Report on June 8 stated that it approved $44.28 billion in arms shipments to 173 nations in the last fiscal year, including some that struggled with human rights problems. These nations include the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Djibouti, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Three nations with records of suppressing democratic dissent in the last year -- Algeria, Egypt, and Peru -- are listed in the report as recently receiving U.S. firearms, armored vehicles, and items from a category that includes chemical and riot control agents like tear gas. The State Department confirmed that U.S. tear gas was delivered to Egypt up to the end of November, but has declined to confirm it was also sent to Algeria and Peru.

The export of American arms to countries around the world -- what the State Department calls a tangible expression of American "partnership" -- is in fact booming. The commercial arms sales reviewed by the State Department reached $44.28 billion in fiscal year 2011, a $10 billion sales increase since 2010. Next year should see another increase of 70 percent, the department says.

Those sales -- plus the government-to-government arms exports overseen by the Pentagon -- make the United States the world's top provider of major conventional weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia, France, and China followed behind. Much of the recent U.S. increase came from vastly expanded sales to Saudi Arabia, Brazil and India.

"Obviously, we're going to continue to press and advocate for U.S. arms sales," said Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro in a June 14 news conference addressing arms exports. "We are hopeful that arms sales to India will increase. We've made tremendous progress in this relationship over the last decade."

Shapiro explained that by "progress" he meant that U.S. arms sales to India went from "nearly zero" to around $8 billion in that period.

Here's what the May 24 report issued by State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said about India: "The most significant human rights problems were police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape; widespread corruption at all levels of government; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence. Other human rights problems included disappearances, poor prison conditions that were frequently life threatening, arbitrary arrest and detention, and lengthy pretrial detention."

India is not alone in getting U.S. arms sales pitches at the same time Washington points at rights abuses. "When we deem that cooperating with an ally or partner in the security sector will advance our national security, we advocate tirelessly on behalf of U.S. [arms manufacturing] companies," Shapiro said.

No law requires that U.S. arms be exported only to countries that the State Department - in its annual human rights assessments - determines are treating their citizens well. Instead, a more narrow restriction known as the so-called "Leahy Law," named for author Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and passed in 1997, prohibits U.S. assistance to specific military and police units deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

Moreover, as Leahy spokesman David Carle pointed out in an interview, the law only covers direct government-to-government transfers overseen by the Defense Department, a stream of exports separate from the commercial sales reviewed and approved by the State Department. So, although the Defense Department's $34.8 billion in direct government-to-government sales are covered by the Leahy Law, the $44.28 billion in sales authorized by State are not.

Adotei Akwei, the managing director of Amnesty International's government relations efforts, said that "In all of these countries, there's a need for a much more rigorous process for looking at where these weapons are going and how they're being used. Even though the State Department identifies problems, we still see these sales taking place over and over again. There's a much-exemplified disconnect between the identifying of abuse and the sales."

Shapiro, at the press conference, said his Bureau of Political-Military Affairs ensures any military assistance to foreign militaries and companies "is fully in line with U.S. foreign policy." Officials vet governments as well as the companies on both sides of the sale, he said. "We only allow a sale after we carefully examine issues like human rights, regional security, and nonproliferation concerns."

The State Department emphasizes that many items shipped to foreign militaries are used only for external defense, not for internal suppression. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, for example, a $29.4 billion sale authorized in January for fiscal year 2012 consisted mostly of the purchase of 84 F-15 fighter aircraft. But State also authorized billions of dollars in sales of small arms, ammunition, and toxicological agents to various countries, including $3,091,166 of firearms to Peru and $1,153,617 to Honduras.

Although State's public export declaration lists such broad categories of exported weaponry, determining exactly what the shipments contained is still a challenge. Spokesman David McKeeby declined to discuss whether Peru and Algeria got riot control agents, for example, despite the department's confirmation that Egypt did. Asked why, he said "Egypt was a very unique case. Unfortunately, I can't tell you any more details about these countries, or these licenses."

McKeeby added that "what I can tell you in Bahrain and Algeria's case, for example, is that a lot of these licenses predate the Arab Spring period, and that's something that's being considered for licenses for the next fiscal year. But the information you want falls under ITAR. That's how these reports are written, and that's what we leave it at." ITAR stands for State's International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which say that details of the arms exports "may generally not be disclosed to the public."

Representatives of several companies linked in public accounts to shipments of tear gas canisters to Middle Eastern nations declined to comment. Jose Corbera, a spokesman for the Peruvian embassy's Commercial Office did not return a request for comment, and officials at Algeria's embassy also declined to provide data on imports of U.S. munitions.

State spokeswoman Beth Gosselin did note that some of the weapons exports listed in the State Department's report were meant for use by U.S. forces abroad, not by foreign militaries. In Bahrain, for example, $266.7 million of the $280.3 million worth of military arms and equipment were items for the Navy's "Fifth Fleet" station on the island nation, she said. Gosselin declined to provide similar data for other countries.

Matt Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the U.S. vetting process for militaries and governments receiving arms is better than that of many nations, but that information on which weapons go to U.S. forces and which weapons go to other users is rarely accessible. "It's difficult to take the dollar value of arms shipped to a country and extrapolate which section of these items may be vulnerable to misuse," Schroeder said. "It's tough to make that call."

A provision written by Leahy and passed by Congress in 2011 requires legislative approval for the sale of crowd-control material to Middle Eastern governments facing democratic unrest. That provision forced an initial halt to weapons transfers to Bahrain, which has seen protests dating back to last year's Arab Spring. But in May, the United States ended the months-long freeze for some items, renewing the export of arms meant to be used for external defense, such as harbor security boats and engines for jet planes.

The issue of arms exports to countries engaged in repression of their own populaces has been debated recently by top U.S. and Russian officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 12 accused Russia of shipping attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, charging that those weapons were being turned against Syria's own people. In a retort, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, "We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region."

Lavrov did not mention any nation by name, but Shapiro took the comment as a critique of U.S. exports to Bahrain and called the Russian criticism "totally specious....We have made clear that we're not selling equipment to Bahrain now that can be used for internal security purposes until there is improvement on human rights, and ... as Secretary Clinton pointed out, the sales to Syria are directly implicated in attacking innocent people, innocent civilians. So we believe that that comparison does not hold water."

Next month, the United Nations is scheduled to discuss a global treaty that would require annual reports from all nations detailing the value and type of weapons they exported. Although President George W. Bush's administration opposed the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty in favor of handling weapons tracking on a national level, Clinton reversed that position in a statement in October 2009, saying, "The United States is prepared to work hard for a strong international standard."

U.S. officials have said the treaty, expected to be approved by the end of July, would effectively force other nations to make declarations comparable to what the State Department already does in its annual military assistance report. Akwei expressed hope that the result will be a more concrete system for tracking international arms shipments and ensuring they're not used in cases of human rights abuse.

"The treaty finally focuses an international lens on this huge trade where the oversight is scarce and haphazard," Akwei said. "It will be largely dependent on cooperation of countries like China and Russia, but it will give NGOs in those countries, and worldwide, the ability to see records and ask questions about arms trade."

ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/GettyImages

What follows is a list of the top 10 national recipients in fiscal 2011 of commercially-sold U.S. weapons that were cited by the State Department for human rights shortcomings in calendar 2011:

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES 

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $2,465,144,471 (4th highest value out of 173 nations)

Types of weapons: Missiles / rockets / torpedoes, firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)

Types of equipment: Aircraft and equipment, ammunition

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"Three core human rights issues continue to be of concern: citizens' inability to change their government; limitations on citizens' civil liberties (including the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association); and lack of judicial independence ... political parties are not permitted. The government continued to interfere with privacy and to restrict civil liberties, including usage of the Internet."

"Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal."

The government does not provide equal rights for women and foreign workers. UAE courts reserve the option of imposing flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, pregnancy outside marriage, defamation of character, and drug or alcohol abuse.

JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images

QATAR

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $1,792,415,581 (8th)

Types of weapons: Explosives, missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment: Military electronics, aircraft and equipment, ammunition

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"The constitution provides for, but strictly regulates, freedom of assembly. Organizers must meet a number of restrictions and conditions to acquire a permit for a public meeting. For example, the Director General of Public Security at the Ministry of Interior must give permission for a meeting, a decision which is subject to appeal to the minister of interior, who has the final decision."

"The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights in practice.... The law provides for restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, closure, and confiscation of assets of a publication. It also criminalizes libel and slander, including injury to dignity. All print media were owned by members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials. There were no independent broadcast media, and state-owned television and radio reflected government views.... In at least one case, the authorities contacted a reporter with a warning after the reporter published an article critical of the government." There is no law criminalizing domestic violence or spousal rape.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

ISRAEL

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $1,462,319,370 (10th)

Types of weapons: Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment: Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment, ammunition   

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"The most significant human rights issues during the year were terrorist attacks against civilians; institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens--in particular issues of access to housing and employment opportunities; and societal discrimination and domestic violence against women." 

"NGOs continued to criticize ... detention practices they termed abusive, including isolation, sleep deprivation, and psychological abuse, such as threats to interrogate family members or demolish family homes."

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

DJIBOUTI

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $1,396,999,702 (12th)

Types of weapons: Heavy guns / armament, missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment: Military electronics, cameras / auxiliary equipment, ammunition

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"The most serious human rights problem in the country was the government's abridgement of the right of citizens to change or significantly influence their government; it did so by harassing, abusing, and detaining government critics and by its unwillingness to permit the population access to independent sources of information within the country."

"Numerous persons were detained for political reasons during the months leading up to the election and released afterwards. For example, the government charged eight men -- including human rights activist Jean Paul Noel Abdi -- with conspiring against the state. The prisoners were permitted legal representation and were allowed to meet with their attorneys before trial. Noel Abdi was released two weeks later. The remaining prisoners were detained for two months and released shortly after the election."

"Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The Interior Ministry requires permits for peaceful assemblies and denied such permits to opposition groups during the election campaign."

ABDIRASHID ABDULLE/AFP/Getty Images

 

HONDURAS

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $1,390,675,958 (13th)

Type of weapons: Firearms

Type of Equipment: Aircraft and equipment, fire-control systems, guided missile tracking equipment

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption within the national police force, institutional weakness of the judiciary, and discrimination and violence against vulnerable populations. Police and government agents committed unlawful killings. Vigilantes and former members of the security forces carried out arbitrary and summary killings.... Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, there were instances in which the police and military employed them, including police beatings and other abuse of detainees."

"On December 7, unknown gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed former senior government adviser for security Alfredo Landaverde. In the weeks preceding his death, Landaverde had publicly called for cleaning up the National Police and alleged that its leadership was linked to organized crime. An investigation into his death continued at year's end."

"During the year confrontations over a long-standing land dispute between owners of African palm plantations and rural field workers in the Aguan Valley, Colon Department, resulted in the deaths of or injuries to approximately 55 persons, including field hands, private security guards, security force members, one judge, and bystanders. At year's end responsibility for all but two of these deaths had not been established. Human rights groups alleged that police, soldiers, and private security guards used disproportionate force against the protesting workers."

ELMER MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images

SAUDI ARABIA

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $877,678,790 (16th)

Types of weapons: Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), heavy guns / armament, explosives, missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment: Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment, guided missile systems

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"The most important human rights problems reported included citizens' lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women and children, as well as for workers."

" ... on July 27, security officials reportedly took a prominent human rights activist, Mekhlef bin Daham al-Shammary, from his prison cell at the Damman General Prison to a room where there were no surveillance cameras and severely beat him. A guard then allegedly poured an antiseptic cleaning liquid down al-Shammary's throat, resulting in his being taken to a hospital."

"There were reports that at least two of a group of 16 men found guilty of security-related offenses were tortured in the period between their arrest in 2007 and their conviction on November 22. Among them, according to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Amnesty International (AI), was Suliman al-Reshoudi, a 73-year-old former judge, who was subjected in prison to "severe physical and psychological tortures," including more than three years of solitary confinement. One of the detainees was allegedly beaten on at least seven occasions with metal sticks and received electric shocks. Saud al-Hashimi was reportedly abused by being placed for five hours in a severely cold cell and forced to confess, among other acts, to contacting Al-Jazeera television station and to collecting money without the permission of the ruler."

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images 

KUWAIT

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $693,691,173 (19th)

Types of weapons: Firearms, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents), heavy guns / armament, missiles / rockets / torpedoes

Types of equipment: Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"... there were reports that some police and members of the security forces abused detainees during the year. Police and security forces were more likely to inflict such abuse on noncitizens, particularly non-Gulf Arabs and Asians. Security forces reportedly detained, harassed, and sexually abused transgender persons."

"The government restricted freedom of speech, particularly in instances purportedly related to national security. The law also specifically prohibits material insulting Islam, the emir, the constitution, or the neutrality of the courts or Public Prosecutor's Office. The law mandates jail terms for anyone who "defames religion," and any Muslim citizen may file criminal charges against a person the citizen believes has defamed Islam, the ruling family, or public morals."

"In December 2010 authorities shut the local offices of the Al Jazeera television network and withdrew its accreditation after it broadcast footage of police using force to break up an unauthorized gathering of oppositionists and subsequently gave airtime to opposition parliamentarians who strongly criticized the government for the police actions."

Scott Nelson/Getty Images

ALGERIA

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $406,056,112 (20th)

Types of weapons: Firearms, heavy guns / armament, explosives, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)

Types of equipment: Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS       

"There were reports of dozens of individuals detained for political reasons, including peaceful assembly in Algiers. In virtually all of the instances, police detained activists participating in protests or marches and held them either in the backs of riot trucks on site or transported them to nearby police precincts. Police released the activists without charges once the protests had subsided ... Other human rights concerns were reports of unlawful killings, overuse of pretrial detention, poor prison conditions, abuse of prisoners, and lack of judicial independence."

"Every Saturday from February 12 to late April, government security forces prevented protesters with the political opposition group National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD) from staging a march in Algiers. On several occasions, CNCD organizers submitted paperwork to local officials requesting permission to march, but the requests were denied on security grounds. In some cases police arrested protesters and injured some of them as a result of participation in unsanctioned protests."

"Between 3,000 and 5,000 university students on April 12 staged the first successful public march in Algiers since 2001, despite police efforts to prevent it. Students were largely nonviolent, but there were approximately 100 injuries."

"Radio and television were government-owned and frequently broadcasted coverage favorable to the government. Sources maintained that broadcast media did not grant sufficient access to opposition parties and critical NGOs. During nonelection periods opposition parties and spokesmen regularly were denied access to public radio or television." 

FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

PERU

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $404,325,333 (21st)

Types of weapons: Firearms, heavy guns / armament, toxicological agents (may have included tear gas and riot control agents)

Types of equipment: Armored vehicles, aircraft and equipment

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"The following human rights problems ...were reported: killings by security forces of protesters during demonstrations, harsh prison conditions, abuse of detainees and inmates by prison security forces, lengthy pretrial detention and inordinate trial delays, intimidation of the media, incomplete registration of internally displaced persons, and discrimination against women."

"Allegations of abuse most often arose immediately following an arrest, when families were prohibited from visiting suspects and when attorneys had limited access to detainees. In some cases police and security forces threatened or harassed victims, relatives, and witnesses to prevent them from filing charges of human rights violations."

ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

BAHRAIN

COMMERCIAL ARMS AUTHORIZED

Total: $280,373,829 (28th)

Types of weapons: Firearms, heavy guns / armament

Types of equipment: Ammunition, aircraft and equipment, military electronics

HUMAN RIGHTS PROBLEMS

"On several occasions government forces used unnecessary and disproportionate force to disperse protesters ... the government used excessive force on February 17 when it used tear gas, shotguns, batons, sound bombs, and rubber bullets to disperse protesters from the GCC/Pearl Roundabout. Approximately 1,000 MOI [Ministry of Interior] personnel entered the GCC/Pearl Roundabout at 3 a.m. to disperse camping protesters. Personnel from the BNSA, CID, and BDF Intelligence were also on site. Security forces fired numerous rounds of tear gas to disperse protesters and engaged protesters directly. The MOI indicated that a number of protesters assaulted police officers with rocks, sticks, metal rods, swords, knives, and other sharp objects. As a result, more than 40 officers sustained injuries, including severe cuts to limbs. The clearing operation and subsequent clashes between security personnel and protesters led to the deaths of four individuals from shotgun wounds and injuries to 50 protesters. Soon after the police crackdown, BDF tanks occupied the GCC/Pearl Roundabout to stop demonstrators from occupying the area. On February 19, security forces withdrew from the GCC/Pearl Roundabout, allowing demonstrators to retake control of the area."

"[In prisons] Many reports followed a similar pattern of abuse: arbitrary arrest, beating without interrogation, beating with interrogation, harassment and intimidation without further physical abuse, and then release of the detainee after any visible wounds or signs of mistreatment had healed."

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The List

8 Geographical Pivot Points

From Angola to Yemen, eight countries whose futures are tied up in the land they occupy.

In FP's July/August issue, Robert D. Kaplan writes that the present and future of Pakistan -- perpetually among the top countries on the Failed States Index -- "are still best understood through its geography." But the troubled Southeast Asian country, precariously situated between India and Central Asia, is not the only region whose prospects for growth and security are affected by natural resources and cartographic positioning. In an interview, Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and author of the forthcoming book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, pinpointed eight countries where vital challenges hinge on questions of geography.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

MYANMAR

The key question: Will it connect India to East Asia through invigorated trade routes?

Rich in timber, hydropower, natural gas, diamonds, and even uranium, Myanmar has suffered from decades of economic stasis under repressive military rule. But if the country can continue to open up politically, as it has done over the past year, it could in turn fashion itself into a crucial throughway connecting China with the Bay of Bengal. At the moment, China relies heavily on the Strait of Malacca, a roundabout route farther south, to ship exports out from the South China Sea, while oil and natural gas from the Middle East reach China only after traveling across the Indian Ocean and through the strait. China and India are both developing offshore natural gas fields and building ports in the region; if these two economic superpowers are permitted to build pipelines across Myanmar, the newly resurgent country could unite the subcontinent with East Asia, allowing, Kaplan says, "a real Indo-Pacific region to take hold."

AFP/AFP/GettyImages

POLAND

Will it become the next pivot state in Eastern Europe?

Squeezed between major European powers Germany and Russia, Poland has long been the "plaything of geography," as Kaplan puts it. The Baltic Sea and Carpathian Mountains make for natural borders in the north and south, but the country's eastern and western edges are relatively undifferentiated flatlands. As a result, Poland's borders have shifted back and forth and even disappeared altogether at various points throughout history. Now, Poland stands to assume the role of a major pivot state between Western and Eastern Europe, especially if Ukraine slips into the Russian orbit. Not only has Poland strengthened ties with Germany since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but if it can capitalize on possibly significant shale-gas deposits, it could become an energy producer in its own right -- potentially giving it more political leverage than ever, particularly in dealing with gas giant Russia.

Marcel Mettelsiefen/Getty Images

VENEZUELA

Can it improve relations with the United States and develop its Orinoco oil fields?

Harnessing vast crude reserves primarily in the northwestern Maracaibo region, Venezuela is among the world's top oil producers, with about half of its oil exports going to the United States as of 2010, despite tension between the two countries. Although we tend to think of Venezuela as a South American country, "in reality, it's a Caribbean country," Kaplan explains, considering that most of its 29 million people are concentrated along the northern coast. As a result, Venezuela has few options but to ship its crude across the Caribbean Sea, up toward the Gulf of Mexico, and ultimately to the United States. Kaplan predicts U.S.-Venezuela relations will gradually improve once cancer-ridden President Hugo Chávez expires. In turn, Venezuela might be able to increase exports to the United States, and also might get U.S. help to tap into heavy crude deposits in the Orinoco oil sands, which require more advanced and expensive drilling techniques.

AMON SAHMKOW/AFP/Getty Images

GREECE

Will the "cradle of Western civilization" see its loyalties drift east?

Despite unending discussion of Greece's status in the European Union, Kaplan notes that the country's geography and identity are also tied closely with the East. Not only does Greece straddle Europe and the Middle East geographically, but because the largest religious group in the country is made up of East Orthodox Christians, it is also culturally close to Russia. Not to mention the fact that Athens is nearly as close to Moscow as it is to Brussels, the de facto capital of the EU. Although Greece is considered the birthplace of Western civilization, its legacy as a backwater of the Ottoman Empire means it has suffered for centuries from severe underdevelopment, while political parties until recently have been poorly organized and large numbers of Greek businesses are still family-owned. All this is to say that, heading forward, Western Europe "cannot take Greece for granted," Kaplan says. China, for instance, is upgrading the port of Pireaus near Athens, and if a regime change in Syria forces Russia to abandon its naval base there, the Russian navy could end up turning to Greece in the future.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

YEMEN

Can it overcome the perfect storm of geographic pressures?

For the most part, Yemen's geography is working against it. Although it is about a third as large as Saudi Arabia, the country has only about 2 million fewer people, contributing to overpopulation and severe poverty. With a rapidly diminishing water table, Yemen is also internally divided by mountains, such that it has been near impossible to establish a point of central authority since ancient times. Poor governance in turn leaves Yemen vulnerable to the spillover of piracy in Somalia, which sits just across the Gulf of Aden. If political development in Yemen continues to falter, Kaplan warns, the country could end up more like Somalia -- an unquestionably failed state with a virtually nonfunctional government. "Since antiquity Yemen has often been defined by a multiplicity of political power centers within it," Kaplan says.

 -/AFP/GettyImages

MONGOLIA

Can it keep from becoming a de facto colony of China?

For most of the 20th century, Mongolia was a satellite of the Soviet Union, but today it fears China, which has more than a billion people to Mongolia's 3 million. Despite its sparse population -- the country's landscape is "kind of like Mars with oxygen," Kaplan says -- Mongolia has abundant resources, including oil, coal, and grasslands. The crucial question is whether the country, which was ruled by the Chinese during the Qing dynasty, can now prevent China from exploiting its rich natural resources. To do so, Mongolia has encouraged investment from other countries, including Australia, South Korea, and the United States, but its neighbor to the south still looms large.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

ANGOLA

Can its oil wealth spread to the interior?

In many ways, Angola's geography makes sense, unlike that of many of its African neighbors. Thick forests in the north serve as a logical border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the Kalahari Desert offers a natural frontier with Namibia and Botswana to the south. To the east, a gradually rising plateau abuts Zambia, and the South Atlantic Ocean is off to the west. Although the country has both the geographical makeup and the resources -- chiefly oil -- to be prosperous and self-contained, Angolan society is plagued by inequality. The capital, Luanda, which is perched on the oil-rich northwestern coast, is ranked the second-most expensive city in the world, but some 40 percent of the country's population is estimated to live below the poverty line. The pivotal question for Angola is whether the wealth from offshore oil deposits can trickle down into the country's inland Planalto region, which is well-watered and agriculturally rich but lacks sufficient infrastructure.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

BANGLADESH

Can it host trade routes connecting China and India?

More than 160 million people -- greater than the population of Russia -- populate Bangladesh's sea-level, semi-aquatic landscape. While the northern part of the country is prone to drought due to China and India's damming of the Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the flatlands of southern Bangladesh are threatened by rising sea levels, which deplete soil with the addition of salt. In other words, as Kaplan puts it, the country is "squeezed by water problems from both directions." What's more, the country's rough terrain has hindered both internal economic development and trade. That could change if China, India, and Myanmar open trade routes through Bangladesh. "Geography has been a curse to Bangladesh, threatened as it is by both drought and rising sea levels," Kaplan says. "But geography could become a blessing in an era that might see routes and pipelines operating in many directions, organically connecting the Indian subcontinent with Tibet and China."

MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images