Arms sales to Middle East increase dramatically, research shows

Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases grew by 192 percent over 2014-2018 (AFP)

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New York, United States

Arms flows to the Middle East grew by 87 percent in the past five years and now account for more than a third of the global trade, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report on Sunday.

The defence think tank’s annual survey showed that Saudi Arabia became the world’s top arms importer between 2014-18, with a growth of 192 percent compared to the preceding five years.

Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq also ranked in the top 10 list of global arms buyers.

The report shows how the United States and European nations sell jets, jeeps and other gear that is used in controversial wars in Yemen and beyond, SIPRI researcher Pieter Wezeman told Middle East Eye.

“Weapons from the US, the UK and France are in high demand in the Gulf, where conflicts and tensions are rife. Russia, France and Germany dramatically increased their arms sales to Egypt in the past five years,” said Wezeman.

The growth in Middle Eastern imports was, in part, driven by the need to replace military gear that was deployed and destroyed in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, said Wezeman.

It was also driven by tensions and a regional arms race, he added.

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The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel are readying for a potential conflict with Iran, said the 12-page report. Since 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and others have rowed with Qatar in a rift, which, at times, looked like it could turn violent.

Between 2014-18, Saudi received 94 combat jets fitted with cruise missiles and other guided weapons from the US and Britain.

Over the next five years, it is set to get 98 more jets, 83 tanks and defensive missile systems from the US, 737 armoured vehicles from Canada, five frigates from Spain, and Ukrainian short-range ballistic missiles.

Between 2014-18, the UAE received missile defence systems, short-range ballistic missiles and some 1,700 armoured personnel carriers from the US as well as three corvettes from France, the report says.

Qatari imports grew by 225 percent over the period, including German tanks, French combat aircraft and Chinese short-range ballistic missiles. It is set to receive 93 combat aircraft from the US, France and Britain and four frigates from Italy.

Iran, which is under a UN arms embargo, accounted for just 0.9 percent of Middle Eastern imports.

For Wezeman, “the gap is widening” between Iran and its foes across the Gulf, which have more advanced weapons.

US remains top arms seller

The US has kept its position as the world’s top arms seller. Its exports grew by 29 percent these past five years, with more than half of its shipments (52 percent) going to customers in the Middle East.

British sales grew by 5.9 percent over the same period. A total of 59 percent of UK arms deliveries went to the Middle East — most of it combat aircraft destined for Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Arming governments in the turbulent Middle East is increasingly controversial in the West, said Patrick Wilcken, an arms control specialist with Amnesty International, a UK-based rights watchdog.

He pointed to cases where sales are merited – such as re-tooling Iraq’s army after it lost much of its hardware and territory during the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s surprise attack in 2014.

But, more often, western arms end up being used in human rights abuses, he added, pointing to Egypt’s crackdown on opponents, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

He blasted the “hypocrisy” of western governments not following their own rules by continuing to supply authoritarian leaders who commit wartime abuses or violations against their own people.

“A critical problem for the region is the emergence of armed groups like IS,” Wilcken told MEE.

A critical problem for the region is the emergence of armed groups like IS

– Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International

“In Yemen, totally unaccountable militias are being armed and supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which is setting the scene for a future period of instability and human rights violations.”

The problem has not gone unnoticed in western capitals.

In the US, lawmakers in both houses have passed resolutions to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition, though US President Donald Trump has vowed to veto the document if it reaches his desk.

In Britain, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a ban on arms exports to Saudi. Last month, a parliamentary committee concluded that the UK was on “the wrong side of the law” by arming Riyadh.

In October, Amnesty released a report about French-built armoured vehicles being used by Egyptian government forces to “disperse protests and crush dissent” in crackdowns between 2012-2015.

Germany, however, has taken a stand. This week, it extended until the end of March a unilateral freeze on arms supplies to Saudi over its war in Yemen and the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This has caused a rift with Britain and France, its partners in European defence projects, as it puts a question mark over orders, including a $13.1bn deal to sell 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Riyadh.

Jeff Abramson, a scholar at the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group, said the US should follow Germany’s example.

“Instead of being challenged, the US continues to claim a larger share of an expanding global arms market,” Abramson told MEE.

“As such, the US should take the lead in promoting responsible behavior, rather than encouraging trade to repressive and irresponsible regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Other findings

The report made other interesting findings.

These past five years, Turkey has increased exports of armoured vehicles, missiles and other gear by 170 percent, becoming the world’s 14th most important arms exporter and the second biggest in the Middle East, after Israel.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among Turkey’s top three importers of weapons in the past five years, despite Ankara being at odds with its customers over Khashoggi and the blockade on Qatar.

Continuing to buy arms from Turkey may be a bid by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to keep ties with Ankara on track despite the rift, said Wezeman.

Also, Algeria increased its arms imports by 55 percent over the past five years, with shipments from Russia, China, Germany and elsewhere.

This made it the world’s fifth biggest arms importer despite only having a $168bn economy.

Algeria buys arms for military prestige, to tackle militants from neighbouring Libya and because of its “long-standing rivalry with Morocco”, said Wezeman.

Sipri measures the volume of deliveries of arms, not the dollar value of deals. The volume of deliveries to each country tend to fluctuate, so it presents data in five-year periods that a give a more stable indication of trends.

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When Yara met Fadi: The story of a Syrian wedding dress under Gaza rubble

They endured countless trials and tribulations to be together – and their story has captured Gaza’s imagination

Gaza wedding dress MEE Sanad Latefa.jpg
A photograph of Yara’s wedding dress in the fiances’ damaged apartment has attracted attention to the couple’s unlikely love story (Sanad Latefa)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – When Yara first set foot in Gaza in the middle of the night on 8 November, the 22-year-old Syrian woman’s journey was the culmination of what had until then seemed an impossible dream.

Yara was finally going to meet Fadi al-Ghazali – the man she fell in love with five years earlier and was set to marry.

On her odyssey from her hometown, Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, to the blockaded Gaza Strip, Yara’s luggage held a precious cargo of embroidered tulle and sequins, a symbol of the hope that had carried her through an arduous, years-long journey: her wedding dress.

Never would Yara have imagined that, only five days after she arrived in Gaza, that very dress would end up buried under rubble.

A love against all odds

Yara and Fadi’s love began quite unconventionally in 2013 when the two were only 17 years old.

“I fell in love with Yara five years ago. We met each other on social media and I immediately knew she was the one,” Fadi recalled to Middle East Eye.

Fadi said they bonded because they “shared the same suffering” – him living under Israeli siege facing the dangers of repeated conflicts, and her caught in the devastation of the Syrian war.

“She was going through a hard time, especially a year ago when she witnessed a chemical attack on her town,” Fadi recalled. “I was terrified something bad would happen to her.”

“We supported each other all the time,” he said. “We both went through devastating wars and deadly attacks, but this only strengthened our bond and made me love her even more.”

Two years into their long-distance romance, Fadi and Yara – who requested not to use her full name or be photographed – decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.

But it took the young couple three more years until Yara was able to reach Gaza, as she struggled to obtain a visa to enter Egypt, from where she would then be able to enter Gaza through the Rafah border crossing.

“Everyone doubted that we could ever meet in person. They said it was almost impossible, but I never gave up,” Fadi said. “Those who heard our story laughed, they made fun of how a girl from war-torn Syria would want to marry a man from devastated Gaza.”

But Fadi’s mother, Umm Hani, was supportive from the start.

“I told her I would not give up even if we had to wait 20 years. She is my son’s choice and I loved her from the moment I first talked to her on the phone,” she told MEE. “She told me she would never marry anyone but Fadi, and that she was willing to do anything to meet him and come to live with us.”

Umm Hani did her best to help her son finally meet the “daughter I did not give birth to”.

“I called everyone I knew to help us bring her from Syria,” Umm Hani said. “I used all means to share her story – some Facebook pages and groups even blocked me for posting too much and asking if someone could help us get her a visa.”

Yara submitted visa requests to the Egyptian embassy in Syria six times before an official told her he would help her join her fiance.

“We were so happy we could not believe it,” Umm Hani recalled. “Our three-year struggle was finally worth it.”

Yara arrived in Egypt on 5 November, and then went on another exhausting, days-long journey to reach Gaza. For two days, the young woman travelled by car from Cairo to Rafah, going through several security checks along the way.

After spending all day at the border crossing, she arrived in Gaza at midnight on 8 November – finally meeting Fadi in person.

“We achieved the impossible,” Fadi told MEE. “I was so happy I could fly. I never knew before then how happy someone could feel finding their soulmate.”

A future struck down

With Yara in Gaza, the young couple was excited to finally start planning for their future.

“We set the date for the wedding on 18 November, because it is also Fadi’s birthday,” Umm Hani said. “Fadi and Yara said they were living the best days of their lives during the preparations. They thought that their struggle was over and that they would finally start a new life together.”

Yara easily got along with her new in laws, who helped her set up the new apartment, one floor above theirs in the same Gaza City building, where her and Fadi would live together once married.

She hung her wedding dress on the door of the wardrobe in her new bedroom, ready for the long-awaited day.

Unfortunately, Fadi and Yara’s struggle was not over yet.

On Monday, 12 November – four days after Yara arrived in Gaza, and six days before their wedding date – Israeli forces launched air strikes across the Gaza Strip.

The escalation of violence came in the wake of a deadly botched Israeli ground operationinside Gaza, prompting Hamas to retaliate by launching hundreds of rockets towards Israel – to which Israel responded with strikes.

At least nine buildings were directly hit in Gaza City, including a building known as al-Rahma, next to the Ghazali home.

Gaza air strike 13112018 AFP_0
The night of air strikes in which Yara and Fadi’s apartment was damaged caused untold destruction across the Gaza Strip (AFP)

“Yara and my mom were arranging her clothes in the bedroom when people in the street started to shout,” Fadi said. “Someone pounded on our door and said we had to leave the house immediately, because Israeli F-16s were about to destroy the building.

“I did not know what to do, I didn’t take anything with me. We just rushed to the street before several massive air strikes hit the al-Rahma building, causing it to collapse.”

By the time a ceasefire was reached on Tuesday, 15 Palestinians and one Israeli had been killed in the span of two days.

Starting anew

After the attack, Fadi and Yara rushed back into their apartment.

“Everything was destroyed: the doors, the windows, the furniture, our bedroom,” Fadi recounted. “Yara’s wedding dress was under rubble. She was in complete shock.”

Years of savings for their future were now “gone with the wind”.

“Yara told me: ‘I have been running away from war my entire life, but this monster seems to have chased after me and found me’,” Fadi said.

“I was speechless. I did not know how to make it up to her. What could I tell her? Sorry I’ve saved you from one war only to bring you to another one?”

Yara was scared her parents back in Syria would find out what had happened.

“Her parents were worried she would leave them and come to Gaza,” Umm Hani said. “How can I tell them now that their fears were justified?…Her apartment was destroyed and she would have been killed if she had not left it right before the attack.”

With their life plans now in jeopardy, the couple has begun asking themselves whether they should not only postpone their wedding, but forego a wedding party altogether.

“How could we have a party and be happy again after we’ve lost everything?” Fadi asked. “All I know now is that I need to make it up to Yara. She’s already gone through enough.”

But amid their hardships, hope has sprung anew.

A photograph of Yara’s dress hanging amid broken cement and debris gained attention in Gaza – and sympathy poured in as details of the young couple’s unlikely love story became known. A local kitchenware business announced they would donate ceramic plates to make up for their broken wares.

Soon enough, other businesses and individuals followed suit – donating money, goods and services to help get Fadi and Yara back on their feet.

The outpouring of community support has reinforced the two young people’s commitment to one another, as Fadi told Yara not to give up: “We will tell our children and grandchildren about all the suffering and obstacles we had to go through in order to stay together.”

By Maha Hussaini
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