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International Weapons Transfers Down for First Time in Years, Except in Middle East
Arab men explore new models of machine guns during the weapons exhibition IDEX in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on Feb. 26, 2015. (Zoya Shu/NurPhoto via Getty Image)

International Weapons Transfers Down for First Time in Years, Except in Middle East

Five-year research details how the coronavirus and other factors changed the world’s weapons landscape

After a decade and a half of steady and significant increases in global weapons transfers, the past five years have seen a noticeable dip in the scale of arms deliveries on the international level, and especially last year, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

According to the study, considered one of the most comprehensive and accurate on the matter, the 2016-2020 time frame registered a 0.5% decrease in the volume of major arms transfers compared with the previous five-year window, due in large part to sharp declines in exports by key manufacturers like Russia and China.

“Our data show a remarkable dip in global arms transfers in 2020 compared to previous years,” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Program and the man behind the study, told The Media Line.

“The immediate effects of the pandemic must have played a role in that. However, as the fluctuations vary a lot per exporter or importer there are reasons to assume that other factors played a major role, including national procurement cycles, gaps in deliveries during shifting relations between suppliers and recipients, and non-pandemic-related economic conditions,” he said.

“Similarly, the low oil prices since 2016 may have forced some countries to cut down on some procurement contracts well before the pandemic, leading to lower deliveries in 2020,” Wezeman added.

These considerable drops, however, were largely negated by a substantial growth in exports by the United States (15% increase), France (44% increase) and Germany (21% increase), three of the world’s top four weapon exporters in the past five years.

Already now we have seen that in 2020 and early 2021 several major contracts for arms imports have been signed or agreed in a diversity of countries

Despite the overlap between the study’s time frame and the previous White House administration, Wezeman says it was not former President Donald Trump who caused the 15% hike.

“The bulk of the deliveries of weapons [by the US] to Saudi Arabia in 2016-2020 consisted of weapons that had been contracted before the Trump administration or included contracts for which the foundations were laid before” Trump took office, he said.

“Of course, the Trump administration pushed hard for some deals that were opposed by Congress, in particular large sales of guided bombs. However, only now that the Biden administration is in place we will be able to see if [there is] a significant change in arms exports compared to the Trump administration,” he added.

In his first month in office, President Joe Biden quickly halted scheduled deals with Riyadh, promising to review the sales in light of the kingdom’s patchy human rights record.

“President Biden has indicated he is willing to sharply depart from his predecessor’s foreign policies, chief among them relations and agreements with Gulf powers, if they are not compatible with his and his party’s views on issues of human rights, accountability, etc.,” according to Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US Middle East policy at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The fall in global transactions can be detected nearly across the board, with the noticeable exception of the Middle East, which expanded its overall arms import by 25% in the latter half of the decade, making it the recipient of one-third of the world’s weapons during that time.

The three countries most responsible for that increase are: Saudi Arabia, currently the world’s largest arms importer, which grew its transfers by over 60%; Egypt, ranked third on the list of global importers after acquiring 136% more weapons than in 2011-2015; and Qatar, which imported a whopping 361% more arms over the past five years than it did in the previous five years.

There are major geopolitical considerations fueling these trends, according to Wezeman.

“For Egypt, the concern about its access to oil and gas in the Mediterranean seems an important element of its investments, especially in naval capabilities,” Wezeman said, pointing to the slew of submarines, frigates and other vessels recently acquired by Cairo, catapulting it to the top five of world arms importers since 2016.

“However, Egypt also faces tensions with Ethiopia over the Nile dam, the risk of conflict in Libya spilling over, the conflict in the Sinai, a military regime that appears ready to use force against any peaceful or violent uprisings; and, of course, questions can be raised about how such a militarized regime pursues arms acquisitions as a means of prestige, and the potential role of corruption as driver for arms procurement,” he said.

As for Qatar, Wezeman believes the blockade imposed on the Gulf nation by its neighbors in 2017 and lifted only last month played a role, though not a central one, in its acquiring so many weapons.

Qatar started its major arms import program before the Gulf crisis between it, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain began, Wezeman said. “Its massive build up, certainly for such a small country, seems to be particularly rooted in a change of leadership in 2013,” he said.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani became the Emir of Qatar nearly eight years ago, taking over for his father and promising sweeping infrastructure and welfare reforms.

The emir “considers military power an important [component] of his efforts to put Qatar on the map as major player in the region and a bit beyond,” Wezeman said, adding that it remains to be seen “whether the advanced and numerous weapons supplied can be absorbed, and whether the military truly will be a capable fighting force or not.”

Some arms companies have stated that the pandemic had a direct impact on their planned output for 2020

Israel is another player not to be forgotten in the Middle East. In the past five years, it has become the eighth largest armaments exporter in the world, delivering to nearly 40 states and growing its exports by nearly 60% compared to 2011-2015.

While its largest buyer was easily India, Israel also supplied 17% of its exported weapons to Azerbaijan, which employed Jerusalem’s unmanned drones, ballistic missiles and loitering munitions in its recent round of fighting with neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

As to how these drastic trends may change or persist, Wezeman advises caution.

“The immediate effects of the pandemic relate to disruptions in 2020 in production and deliveries for all industries, when staff cannot go to work, sickness levels are high and travel restrictions hinder the actual delivery of items,” he said.

“Some arms companies have stated that the pandemic had a direct impact on their planned output for 2020. Lockheed Martin delivered fewer F-35s than planned in 2020, and the economic effects may very well dampen some of the arms procurement plans,” he also said.

“However, that does not necessarily mean major decreases in arms transfers in the near or the longer-term future,” Wezeman said. “Plans for major procurements may be cut somewhat, but still be higher than procurement several years back. Already now we have seen that in 2020 and early 2021 several major contracts for arms imports have been signed or agreed in a diversity of countries.”

Making forecasts is “always risky,” Wezeman said. For example, who in 2018 had expected that the US would halt the sale of F-35s to Turkey two years later. But, he added, “considering the outstanding deliveries on existing contracts for 2021 and a few years beyond, it would not be surprising if global arms transfers would grow again.”

 

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