In most military conflicts worldwide, the ultimate winners are not one of the warring parties– but the world’s prolific arms traders, described by peace activists as “merchants of death”.
While fighting keeps escalating, the hunger for conventional weapons continues unabated, as exemplified in several ongoing battles. The weapons of war include sophisticated jet fighters, combat helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles, warships, battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery and small arms.
Conflicts include the six-year civil war in Syria where multiple warring factions are being armed either by the US, Russia or Iran; the three-year armed conflict in Yemen where American weapons are being used indiscriminately by Saudi Arabia, mostly against civilians; and the simmering 50-year old Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has transformed the heavily-armed Jewish state into a formidable military power described as far superior to the collective might of all the Arab states put together. The mostly strife-torn Middle Eastern nations alone more than doubled their arms purchases over the last 10 years. And arms are also pouring uninterruptedly into Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Iran, India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The world’s five major arms suppliers include the four permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) – namely the US, Russia France and China– plus Germany. Together, these five biggest exporters, have accounted for about 74 per cent of all arms exports during 2013–17, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The fifth permanent member of the UNSC, namely Britain, – which finalized an estimated $5 billion dollar arms agreement with Saudi Arabia for the sale of 48 Typhoon jet fighters last week, as reported in the Wall Street Journal March 10 — is not far behind.
“All five permanent members of the Security Council”, ridicules one UN diplomat, “preach the doctrine of peaceful coexistence and the principles of disarmament — while having no compunctions in simultaneously selling lethal weapons in battle zones.”
‘Widespread violent conflict in the Middle East and concerns about human rights have led to political debate in Western Europe and North America about restricting arms sales,’ says Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Programme. “Yet the USA and European states remain the main arms exporters to the region and supplied over 98 per cent of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia,” he noted. Arms supplying states, he noted, have shown little signs of restraint aimed at cooling off the situation.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, Senior Fellow with the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS, the United States retains its title as “the leading merchant of death”. US manufacturers supplied more than a third of the value of the major conventional weapons delivered around the world from 2013-2017, the period covered by this report.
“The situation isn’t likely to get better any time soon, with a report from Reuters earlier this year indicating that the Trump Administration plans to loosen controls on weapons exports and task embassy officials with being more active in pursuing sales”. This initiative is reportedly a “Buy American” plan, which effectively treats weapons as if they were simply another consumer commodity. “It seems clear that President Trump is going to continue the unfortunate pattern of previous administrations, exercising little control over US weapons exports. Rather than seeing the risks inherent in unfettered arms transfers, he merely seems to see dollar signs,” said Dr Goldring, " If more weapons made people safer, the Middle East should be a remarkably peaceful place. The opposite seems closer to the truth, with continued conflict across the region,” Dr Goldring declared.
India was the world’s largest importer of major arms in 2013–17 and accounted for 12 per cent of the global total. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer, with arms imports increasing by 225 per cent compared with 2008–12. Arms imports by Egypt—the third largest importer in 2013–17—grew by 215 per cent between 2008–12 and 2013–17. The United Arab Emirates was the fourth largest importer in 2013–17, while Qatar (the 20th largest arms importer) increased its arms imports and signed several major deals in that period.
Deals for arms intended for use in internal operations, against rebel forces or even against unarmed opposition can also be substantial. A typical example, Wezeman pointed out, is the sale of a large number of armoured vehicles made in Canada for the Saudi National Guard, worth over $10 billion. The deal has become the subject of major debate in Canada, as critics have argued that earlier-delivered Canadian armoured vehicles were used in 2017 by the National Guard against the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.