46.6 billion U.S. dollars is the average estimate for arms sales from the United States to the world in 2015. Big chunk of those receipts have gone to the Middle East where four wars are simultaneously being waged and military spending is at an all-time high.
2015 had many ups and downs, with no winner or loser on the regional battlefield. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) scored victories in Palmyra and Deir Zour in the first half of the year, but witnessed defeats in Ramadi and Houla in the second half. Those who bet against the Iran deal were also disappointed last July as a historic agreement was signed between Tehran and the West on the nuclear program.
But throughout 2015, and in the midst of ISIS expansion and Iran negotiations, the constant winner has been U.S. arms exporters feeding from the regional anxiety and selling more weaponry and defense shields to the Middle East.
Redefining U.S. role
If the final numbers hold at $46.6 billion in U.S. global arms sales in 2015 that would be a significant increase of $12.4 billion from 2014 and $18.8 billion from 2013.
The 2015 landscape has been the worst in decades for conflict areas in the Middle East but is ideal for global arms exporters.Joyce Karam
The dramatic increase in arms sales cannot be seen, however, in isolation from the U.S. policy pivot in the Middle East. If anything, the two biggest milestones in 2015 namely the war on ISIS and the Iran deal rebranded Washington's role in the region, from a perceived caretaker into an unenthusiastic spectator. In both tasks of fighting ISIS and assuring the regional skeptics about the Iran deal, the Obama administration chose to use military sales and not hands on regional diplomacy as a way to comfort its allies.
In the case of ISIS, the fact that the Iraqi government is the largest weapons buyer in the region today with $7.3 billion in the tunnel this year speaks volumes to this new dynamic. Baghdad’s surging defense market is also in response to the U.S. approach, withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2011, and assigning the ground war against ISIS to Iraqi troops while avoiding combat missions. The war against ISIS also involves 17 regional partners whose military capability and air force is being improved as a result.
With Iran, the Obama administration chose to play the military sales card at the Camp David summit last May to assure its GCC allies with new border and maritime defenses, as well as deterrence against Iran. This was translated in more F-15 sales and missile shield to GCC states.
Whether it's confronting ISIS or assuring its allies on Iran, the Obama administration is weighing heavily on military sales, little diplomacy and lighter footprint in the region. Washington appears to have given up on easing Iran-GCC tension or using its leverage to seek to change the trajectory of conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Trend to continue in 2016
While U.S. arms exporters are signaling concerns that their sales will dip in the Middle East in 2016 due to the fall in oil prices and slow economic growth in the region, conflict indicators and new threats predict a continued high demand for arms supplies.
Whether its Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, ISIS threat in GCC countries and Sinai, or active Iran proxies, there are no signs that these conflicts will be permanently dissipate in 2016. Most indications are to the contrary in the coming year, and predict a U.S-Russian rivalry in flooding the defense market in Iraq, Egypt and GCC countries. The rise of the militias in Syria and Libya and Yemen, point to a prolonged war where arms will be flowing in different directions.
On the States level, there is an increased tendency towards boosting state military institutions to counter ISIS threat and internal opposition or what is perceived as elements of instability. This has played out in Egypt and Lebanon, where the role of the army saw a major boost in the last three years. Uncertainty and unclarity surrounding the U.S. role in the region is also feeding this rush to militarization, as confidence drops in Washington's commitment to its presence in the Middle East.
The 2015 landscape has been the worst in decades for conflict areas in the Middle East but is ideal for global arms exporters. As ISIS threat looms, and regional proxy wars heat up, calls for peace from Washington will be ironically accompanied with unprecedented stockpile of U.S. made weaponry and fighter jets in the region.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
- Saudi-led coalition to get U.S. weapons boost
- 2015, a year of milestones of horrors in the Middle East
- U.S. weapons ‘expedited’ to Iraq amid ISIS advance
- U.S. to deliver 2000 anti-tank weapons to Iraq
- Obama touts end of Middle East ground wars
- Erdogan warns against Mideast sectarian divisions
- The U.S. must take initiative to forge Middle East accords
- We have a common dream: A happy Middle East
- Obama in the Middle East: What we’ve got here is failure… of leadership
- Analysts: Arab world needs ‘clarity’ from America’s next president