The latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on global arms sales, released on 11 March, is a sobering acknowledgement that the Middle East and, in particular, key Gulf States are arming themselves to the teeth with the latest and best high-tech weaponry that money can buy. That's good news for the arms trade industry, but bad news for anyone concerned about the seemingly irreversible march toward a regional war as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to ratchet up, aided and abetted by hard-line ideologues in both Tehran and Washington. Bad news, too, for those who care about human rights as they watch them vanishing rapidly across the region.
SIPRI is recognised internationally as the gold standard for evaluating and documenting global weapons sales; it provides an arms transfer database, updated on an annual basis. This is designed to reflect the volume of weapons deliveries and, as that can fluctuate significantly year-on-year, SIPRI presents data over five year periods in order to arrive at a more stable measure of trends.
The latest data shows that Middle East arms purchases have doubled in the past five years. Saudi Arabia maintained its position as the world's number one importer of weaponry. Nearly 70 per cent of the Saudi purchases were from the United States, adding weight to Donald Trump's claims that Riyadh is a very good customer, and the last thing you want to do is upset good customers.
As he said in a 60 Minutes interview in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: "I tell you what I don't want to do, Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]. I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of punishing, to use a word that's a pretty harsh word, but it's true."
Not that Trump has bothered to get around to any form of punishment for the brutal killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on 2 October last year. The CIA has established, and it is almost universally accepted, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the hit on a journalist who had annoyed him while writing for the Washington Post. In the US President's transactional world, though, murder doesn't matter. What counts is the bottom line.
The Saudi shopping spree, although focused primarily on American products, did play the field, and Britain came up a winner. True, the US sold 56 combat aircraft but Britain picked up 38 sales. As SIPRI notes, "In both cases, the aircraft were equipped with cruise missiles and other guided weapons."
Ten days after the Khashoggi killing, when the finger of blame was already pointing clearly at the Saudis, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, "Whilst we will be thoughtful and considered in our response, I have also been clear that if the appalling stories we are reading turn out to be true, they are fundamentally incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly."
Well Mr Hunt, they have turned out to be fundamentally true and yet Britain continues to sell fighter jets and bombs that the Saudis are dropping on civilians in Yemen. There has been nothing as crass as Trump's pure transactional joy at keeping a top customer happy, of course. No, as the arms sales – and the civilian casualties – escalate, we have seen something more restrained and polite. Silence. How very British.
Another Middle East country that has seen an astonishing jump in arms purchases, especially given the weakness of its economy, is Egypt. According to the SIPRI data, Egypt became "the third largest arms importer in 2014–18, tripled (206 per cent) between 2009–13 and 2014–18." That's right, Egypt has tripled its arms purchases under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
While Britain's biggest arms customer by far is Saudi Arabia (nearly 50 per cent of UK weapons sales), Egypt is not an insignificant client. Alistair Burt, the Minister responsible for the Middle East hails a "longstanding friendship" while noting that, "The UK is Egypt's number one economic partner, the largest foreign investor in Egypt and a strong supporter of the Government's economic reform programme."
That programme of economic reform is run by Sisi, a dictator in all but name. He is poised to push constitutional change through a pliant parliament that will enable him to stay in office until at least 2034. Under his regime, thousands have been arrested and sentenced to death or long prison terms in mass trials conducted before military tribunals. Critical media has been silenced and Egypt's once relatively independent judiciary has been hollowed out and now serves at the whim of the president.
Egypt may be on a UK list of countries of serious concern over human rights abuses but that is not going to stop our government from selling arms. Oh no. And anyway, as Prime Minister Theresa May has noted, "We have a very strict regime of export licences in relation to weapons here in the United Kingdom." So that's all right then.
What is truly frightening about all of this is that the Saudis, who are tilting dangerously close to war with Iran, show no signs of reining-in their purchases. "Planned deliveries for 2019–23," says SIPRI, "include 98 combat aircraft, 7 missile defence systems and 83 tanks from the USA; 737 armoured vehicles from Canada; 5 frigates from Spain; and short-range ballistic missiles from Ukraine." That's quite a shopping list.
Meanwhile, as the arms traders flourish, the politicians continue to play a game. "Yes," they say piously, "we are concerned about human rights abuses and the awful situation in Yemen and, believe us, we are making our views known."
That's our politicians; but then there is Donald Trump. No false appearance of virtue or goodness; no use of a mask to fool the public; no hypocrisy. The Donald calls it straight up. Selling weapons to the Saudis is good for America. A murdered journalist, human rights, who cares?
Say what you like about the man but on the arms trade, as with so many other things about this president, he's telling us how he honestly feels. In a perverse sort of way, I almost admire him for that, even as the Middle East is armed and dangerous as never before.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.