THE MIDDLE EAST continues to be one of the world's most lucrative arms markets, with two Gulf nations – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – taking the lead, according to a new study released 17 March by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
During 2009-2013, 22 per cent of arms transfers to the region went to the UAE, 20 per cent to Saudi Arabia and 15 per cent to Turkey.
The United States accounted for 42 per cent of total arms supplies to the region, SIPRI said.
The rising arms purchases are attributed to several factors, including perceived threats from Iran, the growing Sunni-Shia sectarian strife, widespread fears of domestic terrorism, political instability and hefty oil incomes.
"I definitely think it is a mixture of all of those factors," said Nicole Auger, a military analyst covering Middle East/Africa at Forecast International, a US-based defence market research firm.
The Middle East defence market, she told IPS, is growing substantially as a result of civil unrest, international instability – especially between Iran and Gulf States – and higher oil prices.
Toby C. Jones, an associate history professor at Rutgers University, told IPS, "The Gulf is the Eldorado for Western arms merchants and governments that want to recycle some of the wealth generated from oil."
There is no collection of states on the planet with more money and more enthusiasm for purchasing expensive weapons systems than in the Gulf, he pointed out.
Whatever strategic value these weapons have or do not have, it is important to keep in mind these weapons are mostly useless for "actual" war, which is why the United States continues to keep such a huge military presence in the region, he added.
The top three arms importers were India, China and Pakistan. And the five largest arms suppliers during 2009-2013 were the United States (29 per cent of global arms exports), Russia (27 per cent), Germany (seven per cent), China (six per cent) and France (five per cent).
Auger told IPS, "I would pin Iran as the number one driver: its ongoing role in supporting rebel Shiite groups, cultivating political-military proxy allies in Hamas and Hezbollah and more recently its effort to keep Syria's Bashar al-Assad in power."
The Middle East's major interest right now in upgrading or purchasing missile defence networks is almost all in preparation to defend against long-range attacks from Iran.
Also, Iran appears to be the major reason behind the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) trying again to form the US-backed joint military command, she added.
These GCC countries include Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
Auger said internal security would be a close second following the 2011 uprisings, the ongoing unrest in certain nations and the continuing threat of established and emerging Islamic fundamentalist groups.
"This is evident due to the new focus on special operations, electronic surveillance, and cybersecurity equipment," she said.
The influx of revenue among the energy-exporting nations and the high oil price trend obviously plays a part as well, she added.
Last year's 10.5-billion-dollar arms deal, one of the largest in the Middle East in recent years, included the sale of 26 F-16 fighter planes to UAE and sophisticated air-launched and air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia.
These missiles were mostly to arm 154 F-15 fighter planes, to be delivered beginning 2015, purchased from the United States in 2010 at a staggering cost of 29.5 billion dollars.
The missiles were meant "to address the threat posed by Iran", according to a senior US official quoted in a news report.
The arms contract also included 1,000 GBU-35 "bunker busting" bombs to Saudi Arabia and 5,000 to UAE – bombs ideally suited to destroy underground nuclear installations.
These weapons will likely never be used in a serious way in a regional conflict, he added.
Jones pointed out the purchasing of weapons, especially long range and complex weapons systems, has little to do with these states' interest in going to war with Iran or even defending against it. "They have the United States for that," he said.
But, in buying weapons like these, Gulf regimes claim they are also looking after US energy concerns in a tough neighbourhood.
"These are specious claims, designed to reinforce American anxieties about dangers in the region in order to keep the US military there," Jones said.
The Arab states need "crisis" to be a permanent condition in order to maximise the West's and especially Washington's security commitment – whether crisis is real or not, he added.
INTER PRESS SERVICE
LEHTIKUVA / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD AL-HALABI / JACK GUEZ