Imperialist world politics revolve around two axes; trade and war. Wars are profitable ventures for capitalism. Threats, real or conjectured, legitimize concerns of security which create the possibilities for arms trade. No region presents a better example of this than the Middle East. It is unsurprising that a region that is a global supplier of energy resources, with the largest proven reserves, has remained a theater of war and conflict for much of its modern history. The continuity of war in the region is a result of successive imperialist interventions. The conflicts serve various imperialist objectives including the profitable trade in arms.
The Gulf Arms Market
The Middle East or West Asia, which we will define as the countries from Iran to Egypt and from Turkey to Yemen, is home to around 500 million people; roughly 6.5% of the world’s entire population. The region as a whole is the second largest buyer of arms and ammunition in the world after Asia and Oceania. It is also the fastest growing market for arms and ammunition in the world. Asia and Oceania, home of more than half of world’s population buys around 40% of weapons sold in the world market. The entire Middle East bought 35% of the world’s total arms sold in 2014-18. In 2009-13 it was 22%.
Arms Control Association quotes Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) according to which “Middle Eastern countries increased weapons purchases by 87 percent” between 2009-2013 and 2014-18. Saudi Arabia alone accounts for 12% of global arms imports and has seen almost 200% increase in arms imports since 2014. Most of the other countries in the region have seen massive rise in arms imports in the same period. Israel has registered the highest percent of increase in the arms imports whereas Iraq, Egypt and Qatar have doubled it. The Persian Gulf countries (excluding Iran) spend the highest percentage of their GDP in defense. Oman spends more than 12% of its GDP on defense and Saudi Arabia more than 10%.
Today, Saudi Arabia has even replaced India as the leading global arms importer, while Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iraq are among the top 10 global importers. Though Israel has recorded the highest percent jump in its arms imports (around 354%) in the last decade it is still not among the first ten importers. In last couple of months, Saudi Arabia has signed fresh deals worth billions of dollars with the US and other countries, the war in Yemen and increasing hostilities with Iran are the immediate justifications. According to one estimate, Saudi Arabia is spending $60 to $70 billion every year on the war on Yemen.
As the largest exporter of weapons and one of the closest friends of the Saudis, the US is the largest beneficiary. Saudi Arabia and UAE together buy 28 percent of the total US arms exports. The majority of the increase in the US arms trade, around 52% between 2014-18 is attributed to the Middle East region. The US supplies 54% of arms to the region, Russia merely 10% and France 9%.
The Stated Reasons
There can be several explanations of high expenditure on defense purchases in the region. Some attribute this high expenditure to the rentier nature of these states. The so called “Oil for Security” strategy focuses on global responsibility to protect the countries which have the largest reserves of energy sources crucial for global economy. This argument has been used as a justification for the US bases in the region and also to its weapon sales. However, this is a poor attempt to hide the real reasons. Saudis or other GCC countries have no conventional hostile neighbors, especially after the elimination of Saddam Hussein. This is important to remember since the unparalleled jump in arms import recorded by the GCC countries happened in the post-2003 period and not before that. Israel, the only viable threat to GCC, has grown closer to Saudis and other GCC countries and cannot be called a hostile neighbor anymore. Most of the other surrounding countries are economically dependent on GCC. Some of these such as Syria have traditionally seen Saudis as regional hegemon whose interventions into their internal affairs and creates instability.
Iran may be an exception for both historical and political reasons. However, there is no history of war between Saudis and Iran in the modern period. In fact, there are no major material conflicts between countries of the GCC and Iran. A brief look into the history will tell us that all the major regional conflicts since the formation of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s had no direct impact on the country. On the other hand, the Saudis have used their oil wealth to create wars in several countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq in their pursuit for regional control. Therefore, security is a false excuse.
The rentier economies do need “distributive dynamics.” Centralized control over the revenues generated from the sale of oil and other energy resources can create social and economic unrest in these societies. The idea that ruling elite uses the arms trade for distributive purposes may be true to some extent. Since the control over natural resources is limited to few hands a large part of the population in these countries do not get direct access to the wealth generated by their exports. This section can be a source of unrest for the ruling classes. So they try different ways to redistribute a part of their earnings to such sections including the extensive social security programs etc in return for loyalty. In one such move foreign states and arms supplying firms are asked to create local subsidiaries owned by their citizens. In a single commodity economy, war can become an alternative industry creating stakeholders in its future. However, this is a limited explanation and can at best be applied to Oman. However, unlike Saudi Arabia, Oman is not directly involved in any of the regional conflicts.
Obsession with Arms in Saudi Arabia and some other GCC countries can only be explained in terms of their ambition for regional hegemony. The dominant position will give them greater control over the natural resources and regional politics. A stockpile of arms and a large war machinery, hostility with Iran -a potential and more formidable rival-, their closeness to the Israeli state, are all essential indicators of this ambition.
A regional hegemon, with stakes in the United States’ economy can be an ideal ally for imperialist projects. It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia, through state funds or by individual citizens, has invested heavily in different sectors in the US. Sadly, arms purchases can also be seen as a kind of investment which helps in generating millions of jobs in the US. It has become a lucrative industry inviting massive levels of public and private investment.
The US War Industry
The US is the largest economic and military power in the world. In order to maintain its economic and military dominance in the world it invests heavily in war related industry. Its defense budget for example is more than the combined budget of 10 next countries which includes China and Russia. The war related industry helps the US in its imperialist endeavors all across the globe and a short cut way to address the economic grievances of a section of the population at home often at the cost of instability, human rights violations and wars in different parts of the world.
As per the Department of State’s fact sheet on Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, the US defense industry employs 2.4 million people in the country. The public sector arm export earns $43 billion annually. For the year of 2017-18 the commercial arms trade stood at $136 billion. It is estimated that the growth in the US economy in recent times is primarily due to expenditures in the military sector. One company, Lockheed Martin which produces F-35 stealth fighters, has alone recorded a profit of $1.47 billion in just one quarter last year. It has a $109 billion backlog for orders.
American arms exports registered around 25 percent growth in the period between 2012-17. Russia, a traditional rival and world’s second largest exporter recorded a fall of 7 percent in the same period. The US has remained the largest seller since 1990. It supplies weapons to 98 countries and 36% of all arms sold in the world market come from the US.
The Middle East amounts to almost half of the total American arms exports. The arms sale to the region has doubled in the last decade.
When Trump was asked about the punishment of Saudi Arabia after the revelation of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, he said he does not want to hurt jobs and lose orders over the murder. Similar views were expressed about the War in Yemen. Amid global criticism of misuse of the US weapons by Saudi and UAE forces in Yemen, the Senate adopted several measures to stop arms trade with these countries on June 19. However, it is expected that Trump will veto the Congress’s resolutions to safeguard “the interest of the US and its allies.”
Trump had said, “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy country and perhaps they are going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world”. He claimed a deal worth $115 billion would create more than 40,000 jobs in the US. He also claims Saudi Arabia to be a bulwark against Iranian ambitions.
The US is not the only country which wants to use arms sales to the region as a boost for their domestic economy. UK has done it for long since the days of Yamamah deal in 1979. David Cameron visited the Gulf in November 2012, in the middle of Arab Spring demonstrations to persuade UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia to buy its Eurofighter Typhoon jets for more than $3 billion. Apparently, the purchase would have saved thousands of jobs in the UK. Cameron pushed the arms industry as an alternative for job creation in the country. The irony is, consecutive Conservative governments had terminated hundreds of thousands of government jobs in the name of reforms.
On June 21, one UK court ruled that the arms trade to Saudi Arabia as illegal. On the same day the US senate blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan. The War in Yemen was cited as reason in both. Notwithstanding, the UK has already supplied arms worth more than $6 billion since the war in Yemen began in 2015. Weapons and military exports to the region make more than 43% of the UK’s total arms exports.
The US and Russia alone supply 60 percent of the world’s weapon. The US has recorded a rise of 6 percent in the last five years. Russia accounts for 21% and saw a 6% decrease.
The competition between Russia and the US has acquired a new proportion. To the displeasure of the US, India and Turkey are planning to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system. The US produces its own Patriot Anti-Aircraft Missile System which it wants to promote and in retaliation, sanctions or threats of sanctions have been issued against the countries interested in Russian weapons.
The revelation of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi led Germany and other countries to suspend their arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which left the US and UK without any serious competition in the region. Now, they will do anything to defend their dominance in that regional arms market.
War in Yemen and Iranian Spectre
More than 18,000 civilians have died in the war in Yemen so far. Out of this more than 60 percent have died in the Saudi led air strikes. Saudi Arabia has acquired advanced weapons which enables them to block ports preventing Yemenis from acquiring essential commodities. Since Yemen imports the majority of its food requirements, the stoppage of imports has created massive health related problems. Millions of Yemenis, about 80 percent of the population, are in need of some or other kind of humanitarian support.
The Saudi’s discourse in the War on Yemen is that they are apparently defending Yemen. They claim that the defeat of the Houthis would secure the interests of the US and its allies as well as the defeat of Iran.
As previously mentioned, Saudi Arabia has contracted a large part of the War in Yemen to the US and the UK. UK firms sell the bombs to Saudis on prices ranging from $30,000 to $1 million apiece. Most of the jets used in Yemen are manufactured either in the UK or the US. Thousands of British citizens are directly employed by Saudis to provide “in country” services to their officials in operating and executing the war plans. There are reports of UK special forces fighting alongside the Saudi coalition forces in Yemen. Within a year of the beginning of the war in Yemen, the UK’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia increased 35 times to more than $5 billion.
The Trump administration also used the “Iranian threat” as a justification for arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. It declared an emergency under the Arms Export Control Act to push for 22 different arms sales worth $8 billion to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan. It is expected to use it again to bypass the current Congressional resolutions.
Asymmetry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of overall defense expenditure is important to highlight. As per the estimates given by SIPRI the Arab gulf countries have overspent Iran by six to nine times (2017) on defense. Iran spends around 4% of its GDP on defense as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s 10%. The size of Iranian economy is half the size of the economy of Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian representative to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi has warned against “dangerous actions of a special circle inside and outside the region” to stoke tensions in a bid to “justify American and western arms sales to certain countries that are involved in committing the most horrible crimes in Yemen.”
According to a SIPRI report global arms sales have crossed all-time high in the post-cold war period and are gradually reaching the levels of the 1980s when it was the highest ever.
The world has seen the rise of low volume conflicts throughout the globe. The global sale of arms has consistently increased since 2003 mostly owing to the imperialist interventions in the Middle East. Currently, countries such as Libya, Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen are in one way or another, involved in wars and none of these wars are solely of their doing. As of now, there is no serious institutional attempt to stop these wars and the surge in the arms trade.
The 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) has a limited role in regulating the global arms trade because there is no control on volume, type or nature of the trade in conventional weapons. It only requires greater transparency from the state and a minimum assurance about the potential use of the arms.
The political economy of war provides a clear explanation for this apathy.