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Conventional Arms Trade in West Asia

In west Asia, especially in the Persian gulf region, military expenses constitute a high figure in proportion to the GDP. Since most of the countries in the west Asia region, especially in the Persian gulf, do not have their own domestic arms manufacturing industries, their military capacities depend on arms importation from western sellers.
December 2020
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Morteza Naderi

In west Asia, especially in the Persian gulf region, military expenses constitute a high figure in proportion to the GDP. Since most of the countries in the west Asia region, especially in the Persian gulf, do not have their own domestic arms manufacturing industries, their military capacities depend on arms importation from western sellers. The US is the biggest arms exporter to west Asia. 36% of the whole world’s arms exports are from the US. Saudi Arabia and the UAE which are among the biggest purchasers of military equipment, interfere in various regional states by relying on these purchases.

  1. Arms Market in West Asia

Totally in west Asia, and especially in the Persian gulf region, the military expenses constitute a high percentage in proportion to the GDP. Since most of the countries in the west Asia region, especially in the Persian gulf, do not have their own domestic arms manufacturing industries, their military capacities depend on arms importation from western sellers. According to the report published in March 2020 from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, during the 1999 to 2008 period the total amount of military expenses in west Asia has risen by 34%. During the years between 1999 and 2008, of the total conventional arms imported in the world, 21% is related to west Asia, a trend that also exists during the 1999 to 2003 period. However, the volume of arms delivered has risen by 20% compared to the previous period. The result of this reality is that the military expenses in west Asia, from 2010 to 2014, amount to 23%  of the total global expenses. In the next years ,too, the increasing trend of military expenses in west Asia has continued more rapidly so that during the 2015 to 2019 period the military expenses in west Asia amounted to 35% of the total world expenses. The point is, during the 2015 to 2019 years, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are on the list of the countries that have had the largest share in world’s arms importations.

2.Arms Exporters to West Asia

The USA is the biggest exporter of arms to west Asia. 36% of the total world’s arms exports are related to the weapons manufactured in the US. France constitutes 8% along with Germany 5.8% and the UK 3.7%. During the years 1999 to 2003, the Us is the main provider by 46% and after it France by 16%  followed by Germany by 8%. The US is the main provider of arms for most states in the west Asia region. The Us provides most of the arms of Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. Israel has been the largest arms importer of American weaponry during the 2004 to 2008 period, amounting to over 35% of the US arms exported by the US. In fact, 99% of Israeli imports have been from the US. Also, the UAE has received 29.5% of the total arms exported by the US. In addition, 79% of the total arms exported by France has gone to the UAE, and 20.5 to Saudi Arabia.

Also , during the 2013 to 2017 period, 61% of arms imports by Saudi Arabia have been from the arms manufactured by the US. However, the UK ranks second by 23% of the total imported arms. Also ,France, one of the main partners of Saudi Arabia, has provided 3.6% of the imported arms. During this period of time, which coincides with the Saudi coalition war on Yemen, other European states like Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands are also present. Even Canada has provided 1.4% of the Saudi imported equipment during this period.

  1. Military Expenses and Arms Imports by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Since 2015 onward, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have deployed their troops in Yemen against the Houthis. Also, according to reports, the UAE militarily interfered in the internal hostilities in Libya. Iran has dispatched a number of its military forces to Iraq and Syria by official invitation from these countries, while Saudi and the UAE support some of the insurgent groups who are fighting the Syrian central government. In addition, Saudi and the UAE arm armed nongovernmental groups in west Asia and north Africa. These military activities are all in the context of west Asia which is a playing ground for regional and non-regional actors for rivalry and a hotbed of long tensions between these powers. For example, in 2017, due to differences arisen among the Persian gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut all ties with Qatar and imposed sanctions against it.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, over the last 15 years, there has been a pattern of rapid increase in military capacities in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE in a way that  a large portion of the GDP of these countries has been spent to develop military capacities  and import arms. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are still strengthening and equipping their armies by multibillion dollar arms purchases while Iran , owing to the international sanctions, has been unable to do so.

  • Iran

 Iran’s military expenses, during the 1994 to 2018 period, reached its peak in 2006, which was much less than Saudi Arabia in the same year. After the imposition of the economic and financial sanctions by the US and EU states, Iran’s military expenses decreased and reached their lowest in 2012-2013. In 2018, Iran’s military expenses, once again, fell by 9.5%  to 13.2 billion dollars, which constituted only 2.7% of the Iranian GDP. These statistics rank Iran 25th  among the countries with the biggest military expenses in the world.

Totally, Iran’s military equipment imports have considerably decreased during the years between 1994 and 2018. Over the course of this period, Iran’s arms imports compared to that of many other states in the west Asia region have been relatively low. As an example, the total value of Iran’s arms imports during the 2009 to 2018 period are equal to 3.5% of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports during the same period. It is to be noted, according to the UNSC resolution,  transfer and sales of military arms and pieces of equipment to Iran are banned and limited.

However, as a part of the JCPOA agreement the UN security council adopted the resolution 2231 unanimously on July 20,2015. As per the paragraph.5 of annex B of resolution 2231 , the security council stipulates:

“All States may participate in and permit, provided that the Security Council decides in advance on a case-by-case basis to approve:

the supply, sale or transfer directly or indirectly from or through their territories, or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, to Iran, or for the use in or benefit of Iran, of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems, as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, or related materiel, including spare parts, and the provision to Iran by their nationals or from or through their territories of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, manufacture, maintenance, or use of arms and related materiel described above. These restrictions on arms-related transfers shall apply until the date five years after the JCPOA Adoption Day (18 October 2015) or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

Therefore, as stipulated in the UNSC resolution 2231 the provisions related to some military restrictions and transfer of conventional arms to Iran expire on October 18, 2020.

  • Saudi Arabia

In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s military expenses are estimated at over 78.4 billion dollars. This figure, makes Saudi the third biggest consumer of military arms in the world and by a large margin the biggest purchaser of military equipment pieces in west Asia. Over the last 25 years, three periods can be observed where Saudi military expenses have enormously increased. Saudi military expenses have increased by 57% during the years between 1996 and 1998. During the 2003 to 2007 they increased by 76%. Also, the military expenses have increased by 63% during the 2011 to 2015 period.

 One index that suggests the importance of military capacities for Saudi Arabia is the proportion of the military expenses to its GDP. Saudi Arabia, in 2017 allocated about 8.8% of its GDP, and in 2019 with a small increase, 10.1 of its GDP to strengthening its military capacity. The highest amount; the military expenses of Saudi Arabia in 2015 constituted over 13% of its GDP, while, in 2018, all the countries which are on the list of the 15 biggest countries in the world for military expenditure, have allocated a less than 4% share of their GDP to military consumption.

 Calculating the dollar based on its value in 2014, the military expenses per capita in Saudi Arabia in 2018 exceeds any other states in the world. According to the report published in May 2018 from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military equipment pieces and arms imports have an increasing trend in Saudi Arabia. The rate, between 2009 and 2013 and between 2014 and 2018, by a 192% increase, has made Saudi Arabia the biggest arms importer in the world  during the 2014 to 2018 period. During the same period, the US and Uk have been the biggest providers of arms to Saudi Arabia. Also, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland have been other partners to Saudi Arabia for military purchases. While, despite reports by international institutes on war crimes committed by the Saudi-led military coalition forces during the Yemen war, the main sellers of military arms, that is the US, UK and France , are still selling arms to the country.

Riyadh’s considerable investment in the military sector means that Saudi Arabia has become the largest warehouse of advanced military equipment in the Persian gulf region. Saudi Arabia’s imports include heavy and advanced weapons like fighter jets and air refueling aircraft which boost  the attack power of the Saudi air force. The US has started the delivering process of 154  F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia since 2016. From 2009 to 2017, the UK too, has delivered 72 Typhoon fighter jets to this country. In the arms contract concerning delivering these fighter jets, arming them with cruise missiles and other guided weaponry has been included. Aerial military purchases of Saudi Arabia are not limited to these cases ,and also, Spain has delivered six air refueling  aircraft to the country to expand the operational range of the Saudi military aircraft. Besides, Saudi Arabia has improved its defense systems against missile and aerial strikes. Between 2014 and 2018, the country has received  23 Patriot missile defense systems. However, Saudi Arabia concluded another contract with the US in 2018  during which seven highly advanced Thaad missile defense systems were ordered to the US.   

Also, the ground and marine forces of Saudi Arabia have been equipped and developed with all  types of weapons during these times. During the 2014 to 2018 period, totally, more than 400 armored vehicles were delivered to Saudi Arabia by Austria, Canada, France, Georgia, south Africa and turkey. During the same period, also, 335 tanks were delivered by the US. In 2015, Saudi Arabia ratified a deal with France to purchase three large warships. Other deals were made over the next years for purchasing  navies. In 2017, Saudi Arabia ordered 4 frigates to the US and in 2018 ordered 5 frigates to Spain.

The most important development occurring over the past years is not ordering and receiving military equipment pieces by Saudi Arabia, but the guarantee Saudi Arabia would participate in manufacturing the ordered arms. Of course, the participation is not deep and is limited to assembling the purchased equipment inside Saudi soil . For example, in the purchase of fighter jets deal with the US it is agreed that 65 of the F-15 aircraft must be assembled inside Saudi Arabia.

 

  • UAE

The UAE was the biggest arms importer in the region during the 2004 to 2008 period, individually constituting 29.6% of the region’s total arms imports. During this period, after countries with over one billion population (China and India) , the UAE with a population fewer than 10 million was the third importer of arms across the world. During the 2012 to 2016 period, the UAE arms imports even exceeded China and , after India with over one billion population and Saudi Arabia, ranked third. The UAE imports consisted of a wide range of conventional military systems. One of the biggest arms deals in this period is related to the $5 billion purchase of 80 F-16 aircraft and related systems from the US. Also, the UAE ratified a $3.4 billion deal with France to purchase 62 Mirage fighter jets as well as 390 tanks. Also, Israel made a deal worth $5 billion to obtain license for manufacturing F-16 fighter jets with the US and another deal worth $1.3 billion with Germany to receive two Dolphin-class submarines.

Latest estimates of the military expenses by the UAE are related to the 22.8 billion dollar expenses in 2014 which constitute over 5.6% of the GDP of the country. In 2014, the UAE was the second country in the west Asia region for military expenses which placed it on the fourth position globally. The UAE military expenses increase has been considerable especially during the 2006 to 2014 period which have soared by 136%.

As said, there is no new estimate of the UAE military expenses in recent years. But, according to the report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in May of 2016, due to two reasons the UAE military expenses during recent years must be more than those of 2014. First reason, in 2018 the UAE has been engaged in a large military operation in Yemen. Also, the UAE has preserved its interference and military support in Libya in favor of some parties. Second reason is that the UAE since 2014 onward has nonstop continued imports of all types of heavy military equipment .

The UAE military equipment modernization has been sped and this country has heavily invested in modern weaponry since 2000. It is estimated that the arms and military imports of the country during the 2004 to 2008 period are almost four times those of the 1999 to 2003 period. It seems the UAE has been the fifth biggest importer of arms across the world during the 2018 to 2019 period.

After development and renovation of its air force fleet  during the years 2003 to 2008 , the UAE continued its military purchases in the aerial sector and during the 2009 to 2018 period , by purchasing three air refueling aircraft, 8  long range transportation aircraft and ten frigates boosted the capabilities of its military forces . Also, this country has received advanced Aerial and missile defense systems from the US which include 9 PATRIOT systems and two THAAD systems.

The UAE is improving its intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities on  military targets. In its most important military purchase, it ordered 5 aerial radar systems as well as two reconnaissance satellites to be delivered from 2019 on. The US and France have been the biggest providers of arms to the UAE during the 2014 to 2018 period.

In addition to this, it is to be said that the UAE has heavily invested in assembling some purchased military pieces of equipment. For example, some of the armored vehicles and cruise missiles purchased from south Africa and a number of frigates ordered to France are to be assembled inside the UAE soil.

   (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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