Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of weapons right now

Soaring costs.
Soaring costs.
Image: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
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Within the last 10 years, Saudi Arabia has turned itself into the world’s largest buyer of weapons on the world market. Ten years ago it was buying 90% less than they are today.

The ramp up has been significant since their March 2015 intervention in the Yemen civil war. 17% of arms acquired by the country since the 1952 have come in the last three years, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Measuring military trade is weird. To analyze value and flow of arsenals across types and time, SIPRI established a unit it calls “trend-indicator values” (TIV). The unit is intended to be representative of a weapon’s military value rather than its financial value. The Saudi government purchased 4.1 billion TIV of foreign-made arms in 2017.

The US and UK are the kingdom’s top suppliers. With purchases of astonishingly expensive weapons like helicopters, tanks, and guided missiles, nearly all of its foreign-made weapons (by value) come from these two countries.

The 2016 and 2017 shipments from the United States include: 142 helicopters, eight anti-submarine aircraft, 153 tanks, and over 20,000 guided missiles. These weapons provide air support for the war in Yemen. A conflict that has been fought primarily from above. Statistics from the Yemen Data Project show hundreds of air raids a month in Yemen. An air raid may comprise of several dozen air strikes.

Following Turkey’s allegation that the Saudi government assassinated the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Germany vowed to stop any new deals with Saudi Arabia. The move by Merkel’s coalition would be a significant reduction since Germany dramatically increased arms exports to Saudi Arabia from 2 million in 2015 to 105 million in 2017. Meanwhile, the Saudis are already buying fewer weapons from Spain, France, and Canada than they did at the start of the war.

After Khashoggi’s death, the US has faced calls to cancel its planned weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The latest deal would send $110 billion worth of arms to the kingdom over 10 years. So far, the deal has earned $14.5 billion.