Mideast arms sales surging to record $18b in 2015, with Saudis in lead

As Western nations boost supplies to their allies in the region, analysts warn of destabilizing effects; US is biggest exporter, Israel is 7th

A Saudi soldier sits atop an armored vehicle on the border with Yemen, at a military post in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
A Saudi soldier sits atop an armored vehicle on the border with Yemen, at a military post in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

The Middle East is facing a burgeoning arms race which in 2015 is expected to include weapons purchases totaling an unprecedented $18 billion, the Guardian reported Thursday.

According to the report, based on data gathered and published by IHS Jane’s and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Western nations are selling an increasing amount of weaponry to the region’s top military buyers, which include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Algeria.

The arms sold include various aircraft, missiles and armored vehicles.

While the West says it seeks to foster peace and stability in the region, the report notes, it is increasingly providing the Middle East’s major players with more and more tools with which to make war.

Nations such as the US, France, Canada and the UK are pursuing such arms exports due to a combination of foreign interests — supporting Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, supporting the coalition against Islamic State — and internal economic interests. But analysts warn that the flood of weapons could have unforeseen consequences.

“(The) Saudi-led military operations in Yemen (are) the latest manifestation of Arab interventionism, a trend that has been gaining momentum in the Middle East since the uprisings of the Arab spring,” Tobias Borck, an analyst at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, told the Guardian. “Middle Eastern countries appear to be increasingly willing to use their armed forces to protect and pursue their interests in crisis zones across the region.”

Borck warned that the increased trade “neglects the regional political dimensions, with arms sales taking place with a lack of regard for that context and without long-term strategic awareness.”

He noted that the sales could also be encouraging proxy conflicts in the region, with Russia seeking to counter Western support to regional allies by increasingly backing its own partners such as Iran and Syria.

Omar Ashour, a Middle East security expert at Exeter University, warned that “the increases in arms sales are bound to be extremely destabilizing.

“At the moment most of the interventions have been against softer targets — Saudi Arabia targeting guerrillas in Yemen; Egypt against Bedouin in Sinai; or strikes against ragtag armies in Libya,” he said. “But if the ‘soft’ keeps being hit hard they won’t remain soft. They will find their own patrons and proxies and hit back and it will lead to a vicious cycle.”

Saudi Arabia last year passed India to become the world’s biggest arms importer, according to data released in March by IHS. Meanwhile, Israel has dropped to the seventh slot among the top 10 arms exporters in the world, down from the sixth slot in 2014.

“This is definitely unprecedented,” said Ben Moores, the report’s author, said of the record sales. “You’re seeing political fractures across the region, and at the same time you’ve got oil, which allows countries to arm themselves, protect themselves and impose their will as to how they think the region should develop.”

Saudi Arabia is building its arsenal amid concern about a geopolitical shift in the Middle East as the United States looks for help in fighting the Islamic State group, said David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

The biggest beneficiary of the growing Middle Eastern market was the United States, with $8.4 billion of arms shipments to the region last year, up from $6 billion in 2013. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imported a combined $8.7 billion of defense systems last year — more than all of Western Europe.

Boosting arms purchases may be a way for some elements in the Saudi government to remind the US of its importance as an ally because defense contracts translate into jobs that are critical to many communities, Cortright said. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, all based in the US, were the three biggest arms exporters among companies last year, according to the IHS Global Defense Trade Report.

Globally, trade in military hardware rose for a sixth straight year in 2014, pushing worldwide imports to $64.4 billion from $56 billion.

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