Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Middle East and North Africa countries increased their arms purchases by close to 14 percent in 2007- 2011, compared with the previous five-year period, with a big spurt in weapon buying last year, figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and analyzed by The Media Line show.
While that was a smaller rise than the 24 percent worldwide increase in arms purchases, according to SIPRI, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) look to be gearing up for a military shopping spree. In 2011, arms sales to the region jumped 67 percent, the biggest annual total in more than a decade. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia placed an order last year for 154 new and rebuilt F-15SA aircraft at a cost of $80 billion over two decades.
During 2007-11, 11 countries in the Middle East alone received 195 combat aircraft of various sorts, but another 416 are awaiting delivery.
The increase in purchases of tanks, planes and other weaponry comes as the MENA region is being shaken by the domestic upheavals of the Arab Spring and a war with Iran that is moving from cold to hot as the West presses Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
But the biggest increases in outlays for imported arms came from countries that have little to do with the region's turmoil. Morocco led the increase in arms imports, boosting purchases by 440 percent in 2007-2011 versus 2002-2006 as it took deliveries of F-16C combat jets from the U.S. and MF-2000 jets from France. Algeria, whose imports jumped four-fold, stocked up on tanks, missiles and combat aircraft from Russia.
Last year, Morocco was at the front of the arms-buying checkout line, as well, but other big increases in buying were closer to the frontlines of confrontation. The United Arab Emirates, which sits across the Gulf from Iran, boosted spending almost three-fold while Turkey, which is nervously watching civil war in next door Syria, also saw a three-fold increase in imports.
The increase in MENA region arms spending is based on SIPRI data analyzed by The Media Line for the countries stretching from Morocco to Iran, including Turkey. While SIPRI reports its data in dollar figures, they are based on 1990 prices and have no bearing on the actual amounts spent on weapons.
The Arab Spring and concerns about human rights have apparently had little impact on the flow of imported weapons to the region, SIPRI said. While Libya was subject to a United Nations arms embargo during the fighting between Muamar Al-Qaddafi and rebels, Russia and China have opposed a similar ban on sales of embattled Syrian President Basher Al-Assad.
During 2011, SIPRP said Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya and Syria all used imported weapons to put down peaceful demonstrations. Egypt, which continues to suffer from violent government crackdowns on dissent more than a year after President Husni Mubarak was deposed, accepted delivery of 45 M-1 tanks from the U.S. and ordered 125 more.
Washington blocked military aid to Egypt worth more than $1.5 billion annually after Cairo ordered the trial of foreign democracy activists, arousing concern in Congress and among human rights groups. But the White House is expected to decide this week whether to release the money by sidestepping a new Congressional requirement that for the first time directly links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms.
Still, the temptation to keep selling to the MENA regimes is very strong. SIPRI said that the Middle East (without North Africa) accounted for 27 percent of U.S. arms exports in 2007-11, making it the second biggest overseas market, after the Asia-Pacific region. For Britain, the Middle East is the biggest customer of all, buying 30 percent of all its arms exports.
"The transfer of arms to states affected by the Arab Spring has provoked public and parliamentary debate in a number of supplier states. However, the impact of these debates on states' arms export policies has, up to now, been limited," Mark Bromley, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program, said in a statement.
Britain, for instance, suspended some arms export licenses and announced changes to its export control mechanisms, but it acted to ensure that the largest contracts with MENA countries, including Saudi Arabia, were unaffected, the SIPRI report said.
Video and photos uploaded by protesters and media outlets showed Saudi troops using Canadian LAV-3 armored vehicles when they entered the Gulf emirate of Bahrain to put down anti-government protests a year ago. Nevertheless, three months later General Dynamics Land Systems, a Canadian affiliate of the U.S. defense maker that makes them, said it had been awarded a contract to provide up to 82 more armored vehicles to Riyadh.
Russia makes only 10 percent of its arms sales from the region, but it has stubbornly defended continued sales to Syria even as the conflict has cost more than 8,000 lives, according to U.N. estimates and Al-Assad has been accused of torture and other severe human rights violations. SIPRI said Syrian imports soared 580 percent in 2007-11 versus 2002-06, with Russia accounting for just over three-quarters of the total.
"Russia enjoys good and strong military technical cooperation with Syria, and we see no reason today to reconsider it," Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told journalists in Moscow last week.
Russia has about $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria, plus as much as $15 billion in other traditional military and economic cooperation - including Russia's only foreign military base, a naval refueling station at the Syrian port of Tartous.
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