The Middle East arms bazaar in 2015: Quest for stability or regional rivalry?
WASHINGTON - The unprecedented rate of arms sales to the Middle East under US President Barack Obama’s administration remained steady in 2015, which raises the question of whether this trend in Arab military expenditures will escalate wars or foster regional stability.
Arms control and defence experts are divided regarding the reasons behind the arms sales increase. Military spending in the Middle East reached $196 billion in 2014 or 11% of global military expenditure for a region that, according to World Bank estimates, produces less than 4% of the world’s gross domestic product.
The Global Defence Trade Report 2015, IHS Jane’s open-source database, notes that in 2014 one out of every seven dollars disbursed on arms imports was spent by Saudi Arabia. Even though spending data for 2015 are incomplete, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbook, which tracks global military spending, gives early indications that Middle East expenditure levels in 2015 are similar to those of 2014.
Several factors must be considered to analyse this trend: the fall in oil and gas prices did not seem to affect military expenditures, in particular for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The major driver for military spending, according to SIPRI, is the risk facing Arab regimes “whether peaceful demonstrations, violent actions or terrorism” as well as “regional power structures and ambitions in which Iran is usually portrayed as the main rival or threat”.
During his summit with GCC leaders at Camp David last May, Obama offered to streamline and increase weapons sales, making the Iran nuclear deal the latest impetus behind the surge in US exports to the Middle East. With an increase from $6 billion in 2013 to $8.4 billion in 2014, total US arms exports exceeded by far the combined regional arms sales of the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Germany.
Washington has significantly increased its overall arms sales to $195 billion since Obama took office, which experts say is driven by federal budget cuts that have curbed US military expenditure by 6.5%.
“With the decrease in US military spending, US weapons manufacturers are increasingly under pressure to sustain arms revenues through exports and the US government seeks to fill gaps between its major orders by supporting export drives in order to maintain its military technology base,” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told The Arab Weekly.
“Aggressive marketing by arms producers with support from their national governments aimed at the small decision-making elite in Arab states strengthens a fixation on arms as the solution to anything that seems a security threat,” he added.
However, Ben Moores, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s, argued that the demand for military equipment initially was driven by high oil prices several years ago and will remain strong in the Middle East for years to come because of “demographic, economic, cultural and social mega trends that are driving war and instability”.
The chaotic situation in much of the Middle East provides many incentives to buy more weapons, yet there is also a shift in the mindset of Arab regimes on how to approach regional stability and the challenge of dealing with Iran.
Moores downplayed the effect arms sales might have on regional stability, saying, “The war has already started, who isn’t at war in some way?” in the Middle East. Using Rwanda as an example, Moores said, “You do not need arms to fight a war.”
“If anything, many of the exports to the region are attempting to keep a clear and stable military balance that encourages stability. Most of the weapons are being used by countries to support stability against radical elements,” he added.
Arms sales are intended to foster regional security, notes Wezemen. However, he says that states in the Middle East “show little interest in the concept”. He also warned of “the moral implications of arms supplies to non-democratic regimes” as they might be used for repressive purposes, which “could contribute to further political discontent”.
On the Arab perception of an Iranian threat as a motivation to arm, Wezemen said that Iran “does not have the resources to keep up similar levels of military spending, nor can it import the same type of advanced military technology its Arab neighbours do”. He added that under a UN embargo it will be hard for Iran “to significantly increase its conventional military capability in the coming decade”.
Regardless of how the Iran’s nuclear deal turns out or the wars in Syria and Yemen unfold, both Moores and Wezemen expect the Middle East to remain a booming market for military exports with Moores seeing “$100 billion in opportunities in the coming decade”.