Arms race in West Asia

An estimated $18 billion in weaponry could be sold this year by the West to West Asian nations.

The ongoing West Asian conflicts are fuelled by arms sales to regional governments and donations to non-state actors by the East and the West.  The region is expected to import $110 billion worth of arms in the next decade, reports military analysts IHS Jane’s.  An estimated $18 billion in weaponry could be sold this year by the US, Canada, Britain, France and other Western democracies to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Iraq, and Algeria. 

This amounts to a 50 per cent rise in expenditure over the last year.  These items include jet fighters, missiles, armoured vehicles, drones and helicopters.  While the Saudis and Emirates can pay, the Iraqis have arranged for deferred payment, claiming the need to fight Islamic State (IS), the jihadi cult which is in control of about one-third of Iraq and a large swathe of Syria.

The US is the largest arms exporter, with a 31 per cent share of global trade, followed by Russia with 27 per cent, China five per cent, Germany and France five per cent each, and the UK four.  Russia has boosted its exports by 37 per cent and China by a whopping 143 per cent but its customers are not in West Asia.

Ninety-four countries imported arms from the US, with West Asia accounting for 32 per cent. Obviously, there is no interest in arms control among the countries in the region or vendors which impose controls on Tehran and Damascus. Last year, Saudi Arabia surpassed India to become the world’s largest arms importer by purchasing $6.5 billion worth of weapons, an increase of 54 per cent over 2013. Riyadh is also the fourth largest military spender according to Jane’s Global Defence Trade Report and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 

The kingdom is set to buy arms valued at $10 billion over 24 months and is due to increased purchases by one quarter over the next five years in spite of diminishing oil revenues.  Its arms budget has been boosted from $49-60 billion.  Canada has signed a $15 billion deal for armoured vehicles with Saudi Arabia.

Governments have adopted aggressive salesmanship to tout their weaponry. French President Francois Holland has become an ardent arms salesman, with good results for his country’s manufacturers.  France is set to sell 24 Rafael fighters and Dassault-and-EU-made missile systems to Qatar, at a cost of $7 billion, and Doha has taken out an option to buy another 12 planes. 

Egypt has contracted to buy 24 of the aircraft for $3.9 billion and has been offered French financial help to pay for the planes.  The tiny UAE is discussing the purchase of 60 planes while vast India has ordered 36. 

Lebanon has taken delivery of French anti-tank guided missiles under a $3 billion contract funded by Saudi Arabia and has received a donation of TOW anti-tank missiles and launch pads from the US.

Weapons research

Investing 25 times more on weapons research than green energy studies, Britain has used troops to demonstrate weapons manufactured by private firms with the aim of convincing wealthy Gulf countries to “Buy British.”  Saudi pilots fly British Typhoon jets to bomb Houthi rebels in Yemen. This is the first time British weapons have been used in a conflict by a foreign air force.  The UK has sold $5.99 billion in weapons to the UAE.

Russia is set to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, a consignment ordered in 2007 but delayed since 2010 due to sanctions. Between 2000-2010, when Syria was under a global arms embargo, Moscow provided $2.2 billion worth of arms and munitions to Damascus.  Current contracts for anti-tank and anti-missile systems are valued at $1.5 billion, 10 per cent of total Russian arms exports.  Iran and North Korea are also providing Damascus with arms.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have promoted conflict to boost their regional influence. Their burgeoning  arsenals have not only fuelled tensions among the main players in the new West Asian Great Game but also propelled proxy driven conflicts on the ground in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,  at great cost to civilians and essential infrastructure.   

Riyadh and Doha provide funds and arms for insurgents and jihadi groups, notably the IS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq.  Saudi Arabia has also recruited Sunni Yemeni tribesmen – some allied to jihadis – to fight Shia Houthi tribesmen who receive minimal backing from Shia Iran, seen by the Saudi rulers as the major menace in the region.

Since  aid to chosen groups in Syria and Iraq from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey comes largely in the form of easily transportable small arms – pistols, rifles, submachine guns, and assault rifles – guerrilla forces need only pick-ups and vans to become effective on battlefields. These groups also get supplies and heavy weapons from arms dumps abandoned by defeated, demoralised regular army troops.


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