The Changing Patterns of Arms Imports in the Middle East and North Africa
February 5, 2016
It is scarcely surprising that almost all of the current focus on security developments in the Middle East and North African (MENA) is on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and on a new form of “balance” that compares state and non-state actors in terms of their success in preventing or carrying out acts of terrorism, and in achieving political control and influence, ideological impact, and tactical success in insurgencies or sectarian and ethnic rivalries and conflicts. The classic military balances between states are still critical aspects of national policy, but are almost ignored by both media and national security analysts. Even classic areas of controversy – the Arab-Israeli balance and the Gulf military balance receive little attention aside from a focus on Iran’s nuclear programs and missile developments.
The conventional arms race does, however, remain all too real. It has changed strikingly in important ways, but it still has a major impact on national resources, military budgets, the competition between states in the region, and the role of key arms suppliers. This is clear from a recent report by the Congressional Research Service which uses declassified intelligence estimates to address the global patterns in arms sales by buyer and supplier and by region, and which breaks down the arms sales in the MENA region by country.
This report is written by Catherine A. Theohary, and is called Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2007-2014. (CRS 7-5700 R44320, December 21, 2015), and is available on the web at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R44320.pdf. It builds on the work that Richard F. Grimmett did at the CRS for many years, and is of major importance for reasons that go far beyond the Middle East.
While IHS Jane’s, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United Nations, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute all make estimates of some aspects of arms sales, they do not have the resources or access to intelligence data to achieve anything like the accuracy that the U.S. government can achieve in making such estimates. If they do not have informal access to intelligence sources, they have to rely heavily on press reports and sales announcements which cover only part of world arms sales, often omit key sales by countries that have political reasons to try to keep the numbers secret, and sometimes come from arms manufacturers seeking to encourage new customers by grossly exaggerating the successful sale of given weapons.
The Overall Patterns in Global Arms Sales
The report makes it clear that the United States and Russia continue to dominate world sales of conventional arms, although France led Russia in some individual years during 2011-2014 and Britain led during some years between 2007-2010. The United States has consistently led Russia, and its market share increased from roughly 38% in 2013 to 50% in 2014.
All sales are reported in 2014 constant dollars, and the report states that:
“From 2011 to 2014, the United States made nearly $115 billion in such agreements, 46.3% of all these agreements (expressed in current dollars). Russia made $41.7 billion, 16.8% of these agreements. During this same period, collectively, the United States and Russia made 63.1% of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations, ($156.4 billion in current dollars).
In 2014, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with $29.8 billion or 48.2% of these agreements. In second place was Russia with $10.1 billion or 16.3% of such agreements. In 2014, Russia ranked first in the value of arms deliveries to developing nations at $8.4 billion, or 40.8% of all such deliveries. The United States ranked second in these deliveries at over $7.6 billion or 27.2%.
In worldwide arms transfer agreements in 2014—to both developed and developing nations—the United States dominated, ranking first with $36.2 billion in such agreements or 50.4% of all such agreements. Russia ranked second in worldwide arms transfer agreements in 2014 with $10.2 billion in such global agreements or 14.2%. The value of all arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2014 was $71.8 billion.”
China has been a significant arms seller, but many of its arms exports have not been technologically competitive with the United States, Russia, and Europe. China still tends to sell to poorer developing countries – something that may change significantly as China’s newer and more advanced weapons become available. China’s arms transfer agreements with developing nations did, however, still average over $3 billion annually from 2011 to 2014, and Pakistan was a key customer.
Broad Patterns in Arms Sales to the Middle East and North Africa
The MENA region is still the largest arms importer in the developing world, with sales more than double the size of purchases in Asia, the second ranking region:
The Near East has generally been the largest arms market in the developing world. In the earlier period (2007-2010), it ranked first with 49.5% of the total value of all developing nations arms transfer agreements ($87.9 billion in current dollars). The Asia region ranked second in 2007-2010, with 30.8% of these agreements ($54.8 billion in current dollars). During 2011-2014, the Near East region again placed first with 60.1% of all developing nations agreements ($148.5 billion in current dollars). The Asia region ranked second in 2011-2014, with $72.4 billion (29.3%) of these agreements. (Latin America only purchased $16.3 billion in new arms, and Africa only $10.0 billion.)
The impact of key suppliers is shown in Figure One. The United States dominated arms sales to the MENA region in both 2007-2010 (53.5%) and 2001-2014 (58.6%). Western Europe (France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy) collectively ranked second: 2007-2010 (26.3%) and 2001-2014 (17.4%).
Russia came a distinct third, in part because Syria and Egypt were no longer major customers, and the Arab Gulf states normally bought from Western suppliers: 2007-2010 (9.0%) and 2001-2014 (14.4%). China had a minimal impact, although it had been a large supplier during the Iran-Iraq War: 2007-2010 (3.5%) and 2001-2014 (1.2%).
The Arab-Israel conflict, however, has not driven the overall pattern of regional arms sales for well over a decade. Israel has increasingly become a major producer, and the Gulf has driven arms imports ever since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. The report notes that the primary force behind MENA arms imports has since become the competition between the Arab Gulf states and Iran – with the Arab Gulf states clearly dominating the race against an Iran limited by sanctions and the fact that key sellers will not sell it advanced arms.
The CRS report notes that:
- The United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with the Near East during the 2007-2010 period with 53.5% of their total value ($47 billion in current dollars).
- The United Kingdom was second during these years with 12.2% ($10.7 billion in current dollars).
- From 2011 to 2014, the United States dominated in arms agreements with this region with almost $86.9 billion (in current dollars), a 58.5% share. Russia accounted for 14.4% of the region’s agreements in the most recent period ($21.4 billion in current dollars).
- From 2007-2010, Saudi Arabia was the largest purchaser with an agreements value of $29.6 billion. In 2011-2014 Saudi Arabia again held the largest number of agreements with a total value of $56.4 billion (in current dollars). India was again second with $38.1 billion.
Weapons Transfers by Supplier and Major Weapons Category
The report does not break down the type and model of the arms sold or the nations receiving them, and only counts major “conventional weapons” and not ballistic missiles or the intelligence, communications, and battle management systems that are becoming a critical part of modern warfare. It does, however, provide a picture of just how large the transfers are by supplier country major weapons category. These data are shown in Figure Two, and it is important to note that the dollar value of transfers does not necessarily correspond to the volume of weapons. U.S. weapons are generally more expensive than Russian and other weapons. As a result, the cost of arms transfers can be a more accurate measure of the impact of such transfers than classic measures of the conventional military balance.
Arms Transfers by Major Buyer and Subregion
The detailed patterns in arms transfer agreements and deliveries are shown at the end of this report in Figures Six and Seven. It should be noted that a 0 (zero) means that total spending can range from zero to less than $50 million. All data are rounded to the nearest $100 million, and once again, the Major West European category includes France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy’s totals as an aggregate figure.
The patterns in new arms orders and deliveries for North Africa – excluding Egypt – are shown in Figure Three. They reflect the loss of Libya as a major buyer since the fall of Qaddafi, but scarcely any stable commitment to peace. Libya has become the scene of an ongoing civil war –reflecting the fact that there often is no connection between the value of arms imports and the level of conflict. Libya bought $1,600 million worth of arms imports during 2007-2014, and received some $1,300 million in deliveries.
Morocco and Algeria are still at odds. This helps explain why Morocco made major purchases during 2007-2010 ($5.1 billion) and received some $3.4 billion in deliveries during 2010-2014, but only purchased $200 million worth of arms imports in 2011-2014.
Tunisia has never been a major buyer and made negligible buys and had negligible deliveries during 2007-2014. It bought $100 million worth of arms imports during 2007-2014, and received less than $50 million in deliveries.
Algeria has been a major buyer and has taken major deliveries as well – many from Russia. It bought $3,100 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, and $13,100 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $4,700 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $5,100 million in 2011-2014. This seems to represent the highly military character of the Algerian regime, rather than any clear threat, although Algeria still supports the Polisario and its claim to the Western Sahara, and has long been in a de facto arms race with Morocco.
The Arab-Israeli States
As noted earlier, the Arab-Israeli states no longer drive the regional arms race or arms imports, but they are still major importers. Egypt and Jordan have now long been at peace with Israel. Syria had largely given up its efforts to compete with Israel by the late 1980s, and became consumed by civil war after 2011. Lebanon has not been a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict since the late 1940s.
Israel has actively sought to preserve its military edge over its neighbors, and has increasingly seen Iran as a threat. Israel bought $1,900 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, and $8,400 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $4,700 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $4,400 million in 2011-2014. However, these purchases understate the scale of Israel’s weapons modernization since they do not reflect the fact that it has major defense industries, and funds a significant nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.
Egypt too has remained a major arms importer, although like Algeria this seems to reflect the military character of its regime more than any real threat. Egypt bought $8,700 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, and $8,400 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $4,900 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $6,100 million in 2011-2014. Some of the purchase may reflect its political instability and internal security needs since 2011, but this could only explain a small fraction of such purchases.
Jordan has long been one of the most effective military forces in the MENA region, and faces potential threats from an unstable Iraq and now ISIS. It also has some links to Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and to the defense of the Gulf States. Jordan has, however, long faced serious resource constraints. Jordan bought $1,300 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, and $1,700 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $1,400 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $1,600 million in 2011-2014.
Syria has only made limited new orders since the political upheavals and civil war that began in 2011 – although it is not clear whether the totals reported by the CRS reflect the value of the aid provided by Iran and Russia. Syria bought $4,400 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, but only $1,600 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $2,200 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $2,400 million in 2011-2014, but these deliveries did not come close to replacing its losses of arms in its civil war.
The Gulf States and Yemen
As noted earlier, the major force driving regional arms purchases is now the confrontation between the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran, although Iraq has also spent a massive amount of money on rebuilding its forces. These were largely destroyed and disbanded after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and used up in the internal fighting that followed and in Iraq’s efforts to defeat ISIS from late 2013 onwards.
These purchases are summarized in Figure Five below, and described in detail in Figure Six and Figure Seven. It is interesting to compare the total size of Gulf arms transfers with those in other regions.
Figure Five shows there has been a massive conventional arms race within the Gulf region that affects Iran’s future military posture and the future risk of a conflict – even if one ignores the increases in U.S., British, and French power projection capability. This arms race is driven largely by the import of modern arms, and it is important to note that Iran’s past behavior in seeking nuclear weapons, and ongoing behavior in creating massive conventionally armed missile forces, asymmetric warfare forces to “close the Gulf,” and search for military and strategic influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is driven by the fact that this is a race that rival Arab states are decisively winning, and where they have major support from the far more modern power projection forces of the United States, Britain, and France.
Iran is still heavily dependent on 1970s vintage U.S. and European arms that have never been supported by the seller country since the fall of the Shah in 1979, and on relatively low-to-moderate quality imports from Russia, China, and Vietnam. It is still heavily dependent on combat-worn aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, land weapons, and ships it imported from the United States and Europe before the fall of the Shah. It has lacked access to most imports of advanced modern weapons since 1980, and has made comparatively few recent arms imports in spite of the fact it has done so much to drive up the arms imports of neighboring Arab states, and lost substantial arms during the Iran-Iraq War.
The CRS study shows that the Arab GCC states ordered nearly 45 times more arms during 2007-2014 than Iran, and took delivery on 45 times more. This advantage also rose with time. The Arab GCC states ordered a total of $49,900 million in new orders, and took $17,300 million worth of deliveries during 2007-2014 – largely from the United States.
Iran has made limited progress in manufacturing its own arms, and the CRS report does not cover its nuclear and most missile efforts. However, the CRS study shows that Iran only imported $700 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and imported less than $50 million worth in 2011-2014, for a total of little more than $700 million in 2007-2014. It took delivery on only $500 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $100 million in 2011-2014, for a total of $600 million.
The data in the CRS study do not include the arms transfers affecting competition between Iran/Russia and the U.S./Arab states in shaping the civil war in Syria. They do, however, affect the equally serious competition for influence over Iraq – another major petroleum exporter. Although Iraq is subject to considerable Iranian influence, it has also had massive military support from the United States and should be seen as a separate case from the Iran-Arab Gulf arms race. Iraq bought $5,600 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and a massive $21,700 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $2,600 million worth of arms imports in 2007-2010, but this total rose to $6,100 million in 2011-2014.
Put differently, Figure Five shows that the Arab GCC states ordered nearly 45 times more arms during 2007-2014 than Iran, and took delivery on 45 times more. This advantage also rose with time. Iran may benefit in the future, however, from its influence over Iraq, which has become a major arms importer.
Saudi Arabia has continued to lead the arms imports for both the region and the Gulf. It bought $29,600 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and a massive $56,400 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $10,900 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $16,000 million in 2011-2014. This is a total of $86,000 million in new conventional arms import orders in 2007-2014, and $26,900 in actual deliveries.
Saudi Arabia also continued to make major new orders in 2015, and its war with the Houthi in Yemen virtually ensures major further orders in 2016. It is important to stress that Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states also had access to the best U.S. and West European arms. Some $62,000 million in Saudi Arms orders came from the U.S. during 2007-2014, and $21,300 million from key West European states.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was also a major arms importer. It bought $13,500 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $9,100 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $2,000 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $6,800 million in 2011-2014. This is a total of $22,600 million in new conventional arms import orders during 2007-2014, and $8,800 in actual deliveries. The UAE ordered some $17,200 million in new arms from the United States, and $2,300 million in new arms from the major West European states during 2007-2014. It also made small purchases from Russia, China, and other states.
Kuwait was not a major buyer by the standards of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but did make important purchases, largely from the United States, but also from Russia. It bought $3,300 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $4,000 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $1,300 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $1,600 million in 2011-2014. This is a total of $7,300 million in new conventional arms import orders during 2007-2014, and $2,900 in actual deliveries.
Qatar increased its arms buys significantly after the uprisings in the Arab world, the start of the fighting in Syria and Iraq, and as tensions increased with Iran. It bought $1,000 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $4,000 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $200 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $900 million in 2011-2014. The vast majority of its purchases and deliveries came from the major West European states.
Oman also increased its arms imports. It ordered $3,000 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $8,000 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $700 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $3,100 million in 2011-2014. The vast majority of its purchases and deliveries came from the major West European states and the United States.
Bahrain made significant purchases for a power of its size. It ordered $500 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $500 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $500 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, and $400 million in 2011-2014. The vast majority of its purchases and deliveries came from the United States.
Yemen is something of the wild card in the data for this subregion. It has long been the scene of serious civil tension, but it experienced a new round of civil fighting in 2009 that then escalated into a major civil struggle between the central government and the Houthi minority in 2014, and became the scene of a major conflict between a Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi in 2015 – heavily influence by the Saudi and Arab Gulf perception that the Houthi had Iranian support. Yemen ordered $900 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, but only $200 million in 2011-2014. It took delivery on $400 million worth of arms in 2007-2010, but only $100 million in 2011-2014. The vast majority of its purchases and deliveries came from Russia and other European states.
Like Syria, and to some extent Iraq, the fighting in Yemen showed how serious the damage is that civil war can impose on any given state in terms of casualties, collateral damage, economic development, refugees, and internally displaced persons. Yemen was one of the smallest arms importers in the region during 2007-2014, but its civil war created major hardships for roughly half its population and the Saudi-Houthi war that has followed made the civil plight worse, and crippled the remainder of Yemen’s economy.
Useful as the data in the CRS report are, it is important to note that they represent serious analytic challenges, and that it would be desirable to make further changes in future reports:
- There are radical differences with SIPRI and UN arms transfer data that need to be addressed and explained.
- They do not include transfers to non-state actors, which have become a major aspect of the violence and threats in the Middle East and North Africa.
- They do not include internal security forces, which have become a critical aspect of national defense spending since the rise of terrorism following 9/11.
- It is unclear in many cases whether the costs shown include contract services and maintenance, and what is considered to be a weapon.
- The arms import data do not seem to report on ballistic missile transfers and costs, or any aspect of importing technologies relating to weapons of mass destruction.
- There is no comparison of what is actually being bought by country, and impacts on regional deterrence and defense capability.
- No standardized U.S. comparison of arms transfers, military expenditures, force size, and the burden of defense spending by country has been available since the United States ceased publishing World Arms Transfers and Military Expenditures. This has deprived defense analysts and arms control experts of a key reference.
- No comparable reference or assessment is available on the cost and effectiveness of domestic arms production.
- Detailed data on arms imports by country is only provided for Middle Eastern states, and not for the rest of the world.
- As is the case with far too much U.S. and other official reporting, no effort is made to estimate uncertainty or perform any type of regression analysis.
They do seem to roughly track with the data being reported by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). For example, the CRS report shows a total of $60,200 million in new arms agreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia during 2007-2014. The DSCA data shows a total of $55,377 million for the Saudi MoD and $189 million for the Saudi MoI. The CRS report shows a total of $14,300 million in arms deliveries by the United States to Saudi Arabia during 2007-2014.
The DSCA data shows a total of $14,215 million for the Saudi MoD and $50 million for the Saudi MoI. (See DSCA Fiscal Year Series, 2014 edition, data as of September 30, 2014, pp. 341). These figures are not directly comparable in time period and the data on commercial exports ($877 million in FY2006 and FY2007) cannot be compared.
These issues would be less critical if alternative sources existed for military analysis and arms control efforts, and if non-state actors and terrorism had not become so critical. At present, however, there is a serious need to rethink the way in which the United States prepares, defines, and provides information on arms transfers.
Notes: 0=data less than $50 million or nil. All data are rounded to the nearest $100 million.
a. Major West European category includes France, United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy totals as an aggregate figure.