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The governments of the Middle East and North Africa dug deep into their pockets last year to stock up on weapons, according to the annual study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Experts doubt the current wave of political turmoil will do much to change that.

This year, the region’s security forces have been aiming their weapons mostly at their own citizens, but during 2010 countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as Morocco and Algeria, were at least as focused on external threats, SIPRI said in a report released Monday. The price of oil rose about 14% last year to $90 a barrel, helping governments to pay for the purchases.

“In the Middle East, we see that there are a number of countries that are investing quite heavily and have been investing quite heavily in their arsenals and weapons,” Pieter Wezeman, of SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Program, told The Media Line.

Based on existing orders and known procurement plans, Saudi and Moroccan arms imports are expected to rise significantly in the coming years. According to the report Saudi Arabia recorded $1.5 billion in arms imports in the past two years, Algeria had $1.9 billion, Turkey $1.1 billion, UAE $1 billion, Egypt $855 million and Iraq $851 million. Israel recorded $191 million in arms imports, SIPRI said.

The institute also estimated that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, spent $50 million on arms imports.  All told, the Middle East accounted for one sixth of the world’s arms imports while accounting for just 1/15th of the world’s population.

“The states of the Middle East and North Africa have been regarded as potentially lucrative markets for arms exporters thanks to the resource revenue windfall of recent years. Interstate and internal tensions provide drivers for demand as well as give cause for concern,” the report said.

SIPRI measures the volume of arms moved around the world using an index that rates “the military resource value of the weapon in relation to other weapons” because an accurate financial value can’t be attached to many transfers, it says on its website.

“There is intense competition between suppliers for big-ticket deals in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America,” Paul Holtom, director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program, said in the report.

According to Wezeman, the impact of the current turmoil sweeping across North Arica and the Arab world on future weapons sales was unclear.

“On the one hand, you see the case of Libya that now faces an arms embargo which means they will not be able to buy new weapons,” he said.  “But in most other cases, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or maybe even Tunisia, it doesn’t seem as if there is much reason to believe that much will change.”

Countries which have been supplying arms will be going on with their supplies. They will not change their opinion much. I don’t think we will see that much of change really,” he added.

China could serve as an alternative, but Wezeman said Western arms dealers are unlikely to step away from a good market.

“Most of these countries in the West, despite their official foreign policies, despite their official arms export policies, will still be inclined to sell weapons,” Wezeman said.

“The best example is the case of Libya … That embargo was lifted and certainly all countries started again to sell arms to Libya, or wanted to do so, despite the fact that they knew there was a dictator in power, despite the fact that they could have guessed that what is happening now would have happened,” he noted. “I think we shouldn’t expect too much of a change.”

Iran is the notable exception. Since the June 2010 United Nations Security Council’s sanctions, which include weaponry, has made it difficult for Tehran to import arms and paramilitary equipment.

“This means that it is going to be the one country which isn’t going to be able to buy much in terms of conventional arms,” Wezeman said.

According to SIPRI, the average volume of worldwide arms transfers in 2006–10 was 24% higher than in 2001–2005. The major recipient region in 2006–10 remained Asia and Oceania (43% of all imports), followed by Europe (21%), the Middle East (17%), the Americas (12%) and Africa (7%).

Most significantly, India has now replaced China as the world’s top weapons importer with 82% of the purchases coming from Russia. India now records 9% of all arms imports with China and South Korea importing 6% each. Pakistan, India’s biggest rival and beset by internal violence, accounts for 5% of the world’s arms transfers.

The United States remains the world’s largest exporter of military equipment,accounting for 30% of global arms exports in 2006–10. During this period, 44% of U.S. deliveries went to Asia and Oceania, 28% t to the Middle East and 19% to Europe, according to SIPRI.

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