The $50 Billion Arms Bazaar: The Countries of the Middle East Region Are Spending Billions of Dollars on Purchasing Arms with Individual Governments Investing Vast Sums of Money to Build Their Military Capabilities. (Business & Finance)(Cover Story)

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This year, Arab governments in the Middle East and North Africa are expected to spend a staggering $50bn on their military forces. While a portion will pay wages of soldiers and officers, much of that money will be used to purchase complex, high tech weapons systems. This arms build up, encouraged by the West, has made the Middle East, in the words of one leading defence expert, "the most militarised region in the world."

There are now almost 2.5m Arab men and women serving in the military units of 16 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the past decade Saudi Arabia has invested over $100bn to create a modern air force, elaborately equipped security forces, and an army with the latest computer-driven weapons systems and communications equipment.

But other Middle East powers have poured significant amounts of national treasure into weapons systems. According to the CIA and other sources, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have spent upwards of $325bn on arms over the past decade. A breakdown of this figure shows that the Saudis spent approximately $10bn, followed by $80bn by Iran (still rebuilding armed forces shattered by the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War), $80bn by Israel, and $55bn by Turkey.

In addition to domestic military production, these countries rely heavily on purchasing sophisticated systems from European and American defence contractors.

While much of this is done through direct purchases from large multinational arms merchants, the US and Europe also provide generous official military aid packages; According to the IRC (the Interhemispheric Resource Centre, a Washington-based think-tank) the US government alone, through its military aid programmes, has supplied over $50bn.

Participation in official military aid programmes is often necessary in order to obtain export licences to purchase the latest military technology. Although the granting of such export licences is generally a mere formality, the licence procedure gives "donors" detailed information about supply conditions and the military mindset of recipients. It gives official government suppliers leverage to control the military of recipient countries.

While the US accounts for over half of all military aid being poured into the region, governments in Europe and Canada are also major suppliers.

Another potentially major player in this market is Russia, which has both economic and political interests in the region. Until the early 1990s, the Soviet Union was the main source of military hardware for Syria and Iraq, and accounted for approximately 20% of arms sold in the region. Its demise created a void promptly filled by the US, and to a much lesser extent, Europe. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear his country is now determined to emerge as a major player in the lucrative Middle East arms markets.

The looming competition could further destabilise the region, even as Middle East states invest more in "security" and less in social programmes.

Donor countries have facilitated this trend, increasing their military aid programmes. In all cases, experts point out that published military aid figures may be low, omitting funds given to police and other quasi-military organisations within recipient countries (such funds often being cynically labelled as "civilian" aid). Egypt, for example, has received police training. It has 34 different police forces. Similarly, Israel boasts at least three major intelligence organisations (Mossad, Shin Bet and Aman), in addition to its conventional military and police forces, which have received so-called non-military aid. But this vast expenditure in the region may not make it more secure. Indeed, a growing number of defence experts say this military build up raises the prospect of greater instability, and a potential increase in global terrorism. This, in a region where military experts have already identified 17 potential conflicts, often centring on disputes over colonial-era borders (exacerbated by subsequent discoveries of mineral or energy resources in adjacent territories). …