The Middle East: An Epicenter of Arms Trade

The Middle East. A region of great import, both geopolitically and economically. Its complex web of alliances and rivalries is the stuff of legend, with far-reaching implications for global security and stability. And of course, let us not forget the abundant reserves of oil and natural gas that have come to dominate the region.

As is to be expected, the arms and oil trades have become the lifeblood of the Middle East, with great powers like the United States, Russia, and China vying for a piece of the pie. Indeed, the lion’s share of arms exports to the region can be attributed to these very countries, their military equipment ranging from small arms to top-of-the-line fighter jets and missile defense systems. In fact, the United States alone accounts for a whopping 50% of all arms exports to the region in 2018.

And what of the oil industry, you ask? Well, let us not forget that the Middle East holds an estimated 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves, and is responsible for about 40% of global oil production. Its oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, are among the largest and most influential in the world. Given the region’s tremendous importance to the global economy, it is no surprise that it remains a subject of intense international attention.

Of course, we must not overlook the darker aspects of this trade. The arms and oil trades have been used to maintain the balance of power in the region, but also come with the potential for corruption and misuse of weapons. In recent years, these trades have come under scrutiny for their potential to destabilize the region and the world at large.

Indeed, the arms and oil trade in the Middle East is a complex and multifaceted issue, one that requires our close attention and understanding. We must work to ensure that these trades are conducted in a safe, responsible, and transparent manner, for the good of all.

Western interests in the region

In recent years, the United States has significantly increased its arms sales to countries in the Middle East. The ostensible reason for this is to protect American allies in the region from perceived threats, but a closer examination reveals that the real motivation is economic.

The arms industry is one of the most profitable sectors in the United States, according to the SIPRI data, 47% of US exports were to the Middle East, including 24% to Saudi Arabia, their largest customer by far.

It has been estimated that the United Kingdom is one of the largest exporters of defense equipment in the world, based on the value of orders or contracts signed. During the period of 2012 to 2021, the majority of UK defense exports went to the Middle East, accounting for 57% of total exports.

So far, Canadian global arms sales have risen every year, with the sole exception of 2020, whose total was still “at least double that of almost all years between 1978 and 2017.” While 2020 was a low for the Trudeau government, it remains Canada’s third-highest year for military exports on record. The only two years in which Canada sold more arms abroad also occurred under the Trudeau government: 2018 (over $2 billion) and 2019 (almost $4 billion). According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Canada is the 17th largest exporter of military goods in the world, with most going to the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Bouncing back from a pandemic-induced lull in big-ticket deals, 2021 will go down as the French defense industry’s third-best year on record in terms of exports — after 2015 and 2016, which saw €16.9 billion and €13.9 billion worth of sales, respectively. The parliament report also said that French arms exports more than doubled in 2021, reaching €11.7bn, including €5.2bn for the Near and Middle East region – 44 percent of the total.

Middle East is a desirable arm market

The arms trade is not a neutral business, but rather a tool of geopolitics and power. So the answer is simple: the region is plagued by ongoing conflicts and political instability. The war in Yemen, the ongoing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, among other things, create a constant demand for weapons and military equipment.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been rivals, with a complex web of political, economic, and religious differences driving their hostility towards one another. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have escalated, particularly in countries like Yemen, Syria and Bahrain where they support opposing sides in civil wars and political conflicts. These conflicts have created a high demand for arms and military equipment, as both countries seek to gain an upper hand over their rivals.

The tensions between Israel and Iran have also had a significant effect on arms sales in the Middle East. Israel and Iran have long been adversaries, with Islamic regime supporting militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and Israel viewing Iran as a major threat to its security due to its nuclear program and its support of those groups.

As a result, Israel has sought to acquire advanced weapons and military equipment to deter and defend against any potential Iranian aggression. The United States has been a major supplier of arms to Israel, providing the country with advanced weapons systems such as fighter jets and missile defense systems.

A report by the Institute of Strategic Research of the Expediency Discernment Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran reveals that Iran’s weapon exports were around 9 million dollars in 2015, which surged to 20 million dollars in 2017. Despite these figures, Iran’s annual arms sales of less than 50 million dollars positions it as a relatively minor player in the regional market. Additionally, the report suggests that a significant portion of Iran’s arms exports are not publicly disclosed and therefore not reflected in global statistics.

Before the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, the Islamic Republic was preparing plans to increase its arms exports to more than 5 billion dollars in five years and to 25 billion dollars in a 20-year time frame. Iran’s exports of weaponry and equipment exceeded 200 million dollars between 2010 and 2014.

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, in which American arms sales fuel conflicts in the Middle East, which in turn creates more demand for arms. This is not to say that the United States is solely responsible for the conflicts in the region, but it is clear that American arms sales have played a significant role in prolonging and exacerbating these conflicts.

Moreover, these arms sales often come with strings attached. Many countries in the Middle East, particularly those with authoritarian governments, use American weapons to suppress their own people. The United States has been criticized for providing weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of war crimes in Yemen and has a poor human rights record.

The United States’ arms sales interests in the Middle East are driven by economic considerations rather than a genuine desire to protect American allies. These sales fuel conflicts and instability in the region, while often being used by authoritarian governments to repress their own people.

Authoritarianism, and Islamist Proxy Forces

This interventions of the West in the Middle East have wrought immense destruction and loss of life, with hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced, and infrastructure laid to waste in countries such as Syria. These interventions, however, have also led to unintended consequences, such as the strengthening of Iranian influence in the region. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon resulted in the rise of Hezbollah, the interventions in Yemen facilitated the growth of the Houthi movement, and US involvement in Iraq and Syria allowed the Iranian regime to increase its power. The destabilization caused by Western interference has created opportunities for Islamist groups, particularly Shia ones supportive of Iran’s Islamic government, to serve as proxy forces for Iran, to the benefit of the regime.

In the Middle East, progressive political groups, ranging from the left and right to secular and radical, such as communists and anarchists, are often brutally suppressed by authoritarian governments. At the same time, Islamist groups in the region also actively oppose and attack these progressive movements, employing tactics such as murder, assassination, and forced disappearance.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has played a significant role in the current global context, enabling the United States to maintain its dominance and hegemony through the establishment and enforcement of the so-called “war on terror” for over four decades. In conjunction with the atrocities of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Iranian regime has helped create a climate in which cultural issues, such as immigration and security, have become central, especially during the neoliberal Thatcher-Reagan era when economic shocks necessitated a focus on these matters.

It might seem surprising that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are renowned for their conservatism and Islamist tendencies, would host events such as the World Cup or Justin Bieber concerts. However, their rulers have not become more liberal or open-minded; instead, there is a need to highlight differences and generate political and cultural tension in the face of mounting competition and capitalism. Without external pressure, these countries might struggle to maintain their stability and avoid internal crises.

The ongoing events in Iran are likely to give rise to a broad movement throughout West Asia and North Africa that poses a threat not only to the autocratic Islamic regime in Iran, but also to other oppressive and authoritarian governments in the region, including the liberal Islamic structure in Turkey and Egypt, the apartheid-racist Zionism in Israel, and the autocratic kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It is probable that imperialist forces are not in favor of these changes taking place in the region.

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